The Fundamental Principles turn 50 years old this year. What better time to examine the challenges faced in putting these key guiding principles into action?

Picture yourself as a volunteer carrying out a food distribution in a rural community in Balochistan, Pakistan, after a terrible flood. You are standing on top of a truck full of food parcels, so that the assembled crowd can hear you better as you begin to speak.

Suddenly, a gunshot rings out nearby. It startles and shocks you, and you find yourself staring at a gun.

This was exactly the scenario that faced Pakistan Red Crescent Society volunteer Saboor Ahmed Kakar as he and a team of volunteers tried to unload supplies from a caravan of trucks in the flood-affected area. The operation was the turning point for Kakar: he had to confront a chain of difficult choices that shaped what it meant to be part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, how far he was willing to go for its Fundamental Principles and how he could possibly apply them when forced to decide between imperfect solutions.

``Distribute the food yourself. Verify all information. It takes more time and we are all impatient — but in the long run it builds trust.``

Tore Svenning, head of secretariat, Standing Commission of the Red Cross Red Crescent

By Ismael Velasco
Ismael Velasco is CEO of the Adora Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in the United Kingdom.

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Speaking of principles

Malik Abdul Hakim is a living example of how the principles of neutrality and humanity can enable someone to ease the suffering of fellow human beings. Hakim’s main task, as recently featured in the New York Times, is to deliver bodies of those killed in fighting back to their loved ones. He does this for people on all sides of the Afghan conflict.

“He collects the bodies of soldiers and police officers killed in areas of Taliban dominance and takes them home,” New York Times reporter Azam Ahmed wrote in the 5 January 2015 edition. “From government centers, he carries slain insurgents back to their families, negotiating roads laced with roadside bombs.”

Hakim is able to do this, according to the story, because he gained a reputation for neutrality during his tenure as a volunteer for the Afghan Red Crescent Society and for not taking sides in the political and military battles raging in his war-torn country. Neutrality is one of the seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and it is a critical tool in helping people affected by crisis.

Movement-wide dialogue

Around the world, these Fundamental Principles — humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality — serve as an inspiration, guide and tool for enabling action and ensuring that people of all persuasions trust the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement’s humanitarian motivations. As we mark
the 50th year since the adoption of the seven principles as we know them today, an exploration of their contemporary application is more critical and relevant than ever.

Why is this so? Since 1965, the humanitarian sector has expanded and diversified dramatically. Today, thousands of organizations offer a wide array of assistance under a diverse range of operating principles — far from the situation when the Movement and a few other key organizations delivered the bulk of humanitarian aid. In recent decades, aid has also often been used as political tool, bundled with development programmes or military campaigns in order to win the hearts and minds of local populations. These trends have sometimes led to confusion, mistrust or even rejection of the core principles that enable effective humanitarian action.

For our diverse Movement, the application of the principles in complex, politicized or even dangerous environments can also raise significant challenges. Every day, Movement volunteers, staff and leadership face tough decisions in which the principles play a central role.

For these reasons, a Movement-wide initiative was launched in 2013 to reinvigorate understanding of the principles by “fostering open, inclusive and constructive dialogue and debate across the Movement in order to generate a better common understanding of the relevance of the Fundamental Principles in today’s humanitarian action”.

This dialogue is happening via public forums, debates, regional workshops within the Movement and webinars (see our website for a list of links), and through promotional campaigns for World Red Cross Red Crescent Day on 8 May, and the 50th birthday of the Fundamental Principles in October. All this leads up to the 32nd International Conference of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent
Movement in December, during which the principles will be a core theme for discussion and action.

Red Cross Red Crescent magazine’s contribution begins with this cover story about a food distribution in which volunteers faced a series of tough choices related to the principles. We then asked other experienced humanitarians for their thoughts on the dilemmas these volunteers faced that day. We invite you tell us: what would you do? What have been your challenges and successes? Send your story to

A day of dilemmas
Kakar had joined a year earlier and by the time the Damani dam broke in 2009, he was an experienced and well-trained volunteer. It happened to be Kakar’s turn as team leader for the food distribution on that dramatic day. Before the distribution, the branch contacted local officials in the area and made the usual arrangements for a distribution. As is often the case in  such situations, when Kakar arrived a this destination with 25 trucks full of food parcels, the people clustered around the convoy to receive desperately needed supplies.

But as the team was unloading, a man approached and introduced himself as a local leader. He said he knew who needed help the most and so he wanted to take over the cargo and distribute the food, thereby strengthening his prospects of winning upcoming local elections.

Kakar knew that to accept this demand would compromise the principle of impartiality, with distribution potentially proceeding according to certain people’s wishes or personal connections rather than family need. Kakar was very conscious, therefore, of a tension between the principle of impartiality and the possibility that the local leader might make it difficult, or impossible, for the volunteers to do their jobs that day, or to come back in the future.

Kakar’s decision
Kakar decided impartiality took priority, as the threat was only a possibility. Breaking the principle of impartiality would also conflict with the principle of humanity, as the people most in need might not receive food.

“I greatly honour you as a leader,” he told the man, “and you are highly important to me, but I cannot give you these supplies as it is against our principles and ways of distributing food. If you are also a victim of floods, of course we will give your family the support that we can in accordance to your need.”

The leader commanded his followers to take over the trucks, but the community joined together to stop them. When the leader realized the community wasn’t with him, he gave an order and a bodyguard fired a shot in the air. Kakar was grabbed by a villager and thrown off the truck to avoid further danger. Members of the community fought and subdued the shooter and finally handed him to the police.

For the moment, Kakar and his team appeared to be out of danger. But who there could guarantee their safety? So the team faced their second dilemma: should they stay and distribute the food or turn the convoy around until the village and its leaders could promise that the humanitarians would be safe? And even if they were successful in unloading their trucks in an orderly way in accordance with the principles, would they be able to return with more supplies in coming days?

In the end, the branch volunteers were able to distribute the food following the usual procedures. Once back at branch headquarters, however, the team needed to discuss and think about the situation. At first, they leaned towards stopping further distributions. “After the incident,” explains Kakar, “we said we would not work there anymore, because our safety was more important.”

But even with threats looming, the principle of humanity, the very reason Kakar had joined the Red Crescent, tugged at his conscience. “Yes, we had decided to pull out,” he recalls, “but my mission was to help human beings, not to leave them behind.”

The volunteers agreed and asked staff for the decision to be reversed and for deliveries to resume. “It was only because of the courage of my colleagues and their dedication that I could work like this,” Kakar recalls. “There were about 35 of us, every one very committed to the Fundamental Principles. The incident was covered by the media, and the National Society and our local branch supported our decision.”

The decision: what would you have done?

What do you think of the comments made in response to the branch’s decision? Would you accept the army escort? What challenges have you faced in trying to put the Fundamental Principles into action?

The dilemma: what would you do?

In putting the principles into action, there is not always a clear answer about how to apply them in each context. To get perspective, we’ve asked some experienced humanitarians to give their views on each dilemma that Kakar faced that day.

I would tell the local leader, “Thanks a lot for your humanitarian feelings, but can you tell me where those poor people are? Where do they live? We have to register them in our database and take information from them. This is a long process and you need not to bother yourself with it.” You should deal with all the parties, especially in times of war, from the same distance. Because if you give relief supplies to one leader, who represents one side or another, then the people on the other side will suspect that you are not independent and impartial. You need all sides to trust you to complete your missions.
Fadi, a volunteer with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent

Distribute the food yourself. Verify all information. It takes more time and we are all impatient — but in the long run it builds trust.
Tore Svenning, head of secretariat, Standing Commission of the Red Cross Red Crescent

To give the leader the food would compromise impartiality. So I would turn his offer down in a diplomatic way. I have to put the peoples’ needs first, and make sure they get supplies according to their needs. Accepting this kind of offer will also cause the loss of credibility among the people. During any relief operation, any National Society will face this kind of challenge so you always need to have diplomatic connections to make sure that you can provide the highest possible level of service.
Salam Khorshid, Syrian Arab Red Crescent and member of IFRC’s Youth Commission

“It’s a risky situation, but I would say, “I need to make the choice about who is the most vulnerable.” Perhaps I might offer them to help us in some way, but only if we make the decision about who receives the aid. I don’t know if it would have worked, but I would try this negotiation. And if he says, “No,” then I would probably say, “Halt the distribution.””
Yves Daccord, Director General, ICRC


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