#131 THE G|O BRIEFING, MARCH 16, 2023

Record ICRC funding gap leaves agency shaken | Invest in essential workers | Sending arms as a humanitarian act | Venezuela's forgotten crisis

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter of Thursday, March 16, 2023

Today in The Geneva Observer, the ICRC has been left shaken and worried after last week’s announcement that it is facing a potential budget shortfall of CHF 700 million this year. “Staff was blown away by the announcement,” an ICRC insider told The G|O, as staff reductions cannot be ruled out. But for some ICRC watchers, with the humanitarian sector facing unprecedented financial challenges but also in search of reinventing its model, the situation may be the best opportunity to redefine the organization’s purpose and to make it fit for purpose. We stay on humanitarian issues with Venezuela, a forgotten crisis,  on the eve of a funding conference in Brussels and, indirectly, with ‘A Humanitarian Call for Arms,’ our guest essay. We also cover the ILO’s appeal to invest in the “key workers” who have played such an essential role in mitigating the effects of the pandemic but remain, tragically and the ILO says dangerously, unrecognized.

No doubt our Op-Ed will leave some uneasy, as its authors outright acknowledge: “It is always a worrying sign when humanitarian workers and activists start advocating for the delivery of more weapons to a combat zone.”

But Russia’s invasion has changed the world as we knew it, more profoundly and faster than we thought. It has made the global outlook harder to read and more unpredictable. With China now boldly leaping into international diplomacy, it might soon become unrecognizable unless, without ever abandoning our liberal values, we start letting go of older models and assumptions deeply embedded in our mindsets and formalized in our multilateral institutions.

As usual, thank you for reading us. Visit our website, comment on our stories.

All the best,

The G|O

Huge ICRC funding gap leaves agency shaken.

Some see the crisis as an opportunity for the organization to rethink its mission.

Last week’s public announcement on selected Swiss media by its director that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could be faced with a funding shortfall of between CHF 500 and 700 million in 2023 has left the humanitarian organization shaken to its core. “If this is confirmed,” Robert Mardini told Swiss-daily newspaper Le Temps, “we will no longer have the means to help people in the places most difficult to reach, where our presence is most important.”

In a separate interview on public radio, Mardini explained that he “was sounding the alarm for those communities that are hardest hit by the combined effects of conflict, climate change, the consequences of Covid-19 and the overall consequences of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” and that he was doing it early to drum up support among the organization’s donors, hoping they would respond to the possible funding gap, a situation felt across the humanitarian sector. The UN itself estimated earlier this year that the total funding gap to respond to the current humanitarian challenges amounted to a staggering $51.5 billion. “There are obviously fewer donations for humanitarian aid in general,” Mardini said, adding that the trend is becoming more pronounced with the Russia-Ukraine conflict. He revealed that of the 10 most important operations of the ICRC, only Ukraine has a positive funding outlook. All other operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria are underfunded.

Last November, the ICRC budget for 2023 was planned at CHF 2.79 billion and—according to knowledgeable sources—included a CHF 70 million surplus. How did the financial situation deteriorate so fast and so dramatically? In a written answer to our question the ICRC told us that this year the “organization is experiencing simultaneous challenges. First, several end-of-year pledges did not come through at the level we had anticipated. At the same time, our costs during the fourth quarter of 2022 were higher than anticipated partly because of inflation, even as our teams delivered a high rate of assistance and protection services to those in need. Because of these factors, we started 2023 carrying forward a deficit of CHF 140 million,” adding that “this reality, combined with the deficit from last year, led the ICRC to communicate two weeks ago that we could potentially face a significant funding gap by the end of 2023.” It is not unusual, the ICRC told us, to have its annual appeal not fully funded early in the year but admits “that will be a difficult year for the entire humanitarian and development sector.” “We have full confidence that our donors understand the high level of suffering in conflict zones and will do their best to fund our work.”

“Staff was blown away by the announcement,” a source within the organization told us. On March 7, in an email seen by The G|O, Robert Mardini wrote to the organization’s 22,000 employees “to reassure you that we are taking decisive action to manage the situation.” As usual when an organization’s mission and jobs are at risk, such messages—while important—can have the opposite effect and increase staff fears. In it, Robert Mardini outlined the detailed response plan approved by ICRC’s senior management and by the Assembly Council, the organization’s board.(...more)

Elsewhere in the ecosystem


After Ukraine and Syria, Venezuela is the largest displacement crisis in the world. Fleeing massive repression, hunger and social chaos under the Maduros regime, an estimated 7.1 million people have fled the country and are now scattered in more than a dozen neighboring countries, with very large numbers of them in Peru, Colombia, the Caribbean and Brazil.

But Venezuela is also one of many forgotten crises, with an underfunded response, largely due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The EU and Canada hope the downward funding trend can be reversed. In close cooperation with the International Organization on Migration (IOM),  the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), they have convened a high-level International Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants in Brussels tomorrow (March 17).

Over 2022, only about $660 million—a third of the $1.79 billion needed to deliver support to Venezuela—was raised, a telling illustration of the acute crisis affecting the humanitarian sector.  The crisis will dominate next week’s Brussels discussion during the European Humanitarian Forum. In spite of the severity of the crisis, since the beginning of the war a year ago, Ukraine has received six times more humanitarian funding than Venezuela. “Venezuelan refugees and migrants and their hosts should not be left behind amidst the numerous humanitarian crises around the world,” the conference organizers say.



We applauded them from our balconies. And we knew why. Without them, our societies would have completely collapsed, the pandemic’s effects on the world would have been even more devastating. Yet, essential workers remain underpaid and under protected, their contribution to the wellbeing of our societies underrecognized. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says it’s time to change if we don’t want to be left unable to respond to the next emergency. Massive investments are needed to ensure better pay and better working conditions for “key workers” the ILO says in a new report based on a survey of 90 countries, published yesterday (March 15).

“In a number of countries, key sectors are facing labor shortages because people are increasingly reluctant to engage in work which is not properly, adequately, fairly valued by society and rewarded in terms of better pay and improved working conditions,” explained Manuela Tomei, Assistant Director General for Governance, Rights and Dialogue at the ILO, in presenting the research and its significance.

“At the end of March 2020, 80% of the world’s population lived in countries with required workplace closures,” the ILO writes, and “across the world, these workers produced, distributed and sold food, cleaned streets and buses to minimize the spread of the pandemic, ensured public safety, transported essential goods and workers to their jobs, and cared for and healed the sick. ”

Yet, despite their essential role, the ILO’s report shows a gap in earnings between key and non-key workers of 26 percent on average, with poor working conditions and little or no social protection, including lesser access to paid sick leave. Nearly one-in-three key workers worldwide is on a temporary contract, with a negative impact on job security and entitlements.

For Richard Samans, ILO’s Director of Research, investing in better pay and working conditions for key workers was a matter of fairness and future-proofing in the event of another global emergency. “This is an opportunity for obtaining a two-for-one payoff: both improving the working conditions, reducing the social justice deficits faced by many of these categories of workers, but also for strengthening the resilience of economies, their ability to withstand shocks of whatever nature, whether it be a future pandemic, a natural disaster, or others.”


World Employment and Social Outlook 2023: The value of essential work
Key workers are essential for societies to function. This report calls for a revaluation of their work to reflect their social contribution, and for greater investment in key sectors.

A Humanitarian Call for Arms

*By Anna Husarska and Nikolay Viknianskyi

It is always a worrying sign when humanitarian workers and activists start advocating for the delivery of more weapons to a combat zone. But, for Ukraine, these are worrying times (to say the least). While humanitarians like us deliver to civilians and troops the supplies they need to survive – fleece uniforms and tourniquets, portable stoves and generators, baby formula and mobile-phone power banks – Ukrainian armed forces often lack the tools they need to fight.

War calls for realism. And the horrifying reality is that, in its invasion and occupation of Ukraine, Russia has deliberately attacked civilian targets and upended civilian life, relentlessly committing atrocities that often do not even bring tangible military gains. Should humanitarian workers and activists silently carry on attending to the victims of these savage assaults, or should we add our voices to the chorus of those demanding materiel that could drive Russia out of Ukrainian territory and end the war? Given the humanitarian implications of more war – including more refugees from Ukraine – the answer is obvious.

A similar dilemma confronts Ukraine’s foreign backers. As Morton Abramowitz, a longtime US State Department official who went on to co-found the International Crisis Group, often said: policymakers must decide whether to deliver “Stinger missiles or macaroni.” He should know, having worked on delivering both, in Afghanistan and Bosnia, respectively.

The West has certainly gone beyond delivering “macaroni.” When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, told attendees at the Munich Security Conference that indifference to Russian aggression would make them accomplices, no one could have imagined that the United States would send Ukraine HIMARS rocket systems, Stryker and Bradley fighting vehicles, or Patriot missile-defense systems. Yet all these weapons – plus British Challenger 2 tanks, German Leopard 2 tanks, and much more – are either in or headed to Ukraine.

But whether the next request – for warplanes – will be met remains up in the air. Planes may be delivered eventually, but by the time that happens – if it does – many more Ukrainians will have died defending their country’s sovereignty.

This fits a broader pattern: Ukraine’s Western supporters seem locked into too-little-too-late mode. They weigh pros and cons, count their tanks and refurbish their missile launchers, tally costs and envision potential outcomes, before delivering a few more desperately needed, long-overdue weapons.

Why all the hesitation? Partly, it seems, the West wants to heed the lessons of past wars. Senior US State Department staff, on a recent visit to our Odesa office, expressed their concerns that Russia’s war against Ukraine could turn into a quagmire, à la Afghanistan. The world would regret the presence of highly sophisticated weapons in such a context.

As our American visitors reminded us, the US (on Abramowitz’s advice) delivered Stinger missiles to the mujahideen rebels to aid in their fight against the Soviets during the Cold War, only for the rebels, and later the Taliban, to turn their US-bestowed weapons on American troops. The disastrous Iraq war – where the case for US-led intervention was weaker than in Afghanistan – may also weigh on American policymakers’ minds.

But wars from which the US and its European allies are drawing lessons are nothing like the one now raging in Ukraine. There is no talk of regime change in Ukraine. Rather, the West is responding to desperate calls for help from an ally – with a democratically elected president and functioning parliament – that has become a victim of aggression by a much larger power.

Ukraine’s government and people have made clear their desire to be a part of the free Western world, not Putin’s repressive post-Soviet dictatorship. It is precisely because Ukraine aspires to join the European Union and NATO that the neo-czarist in the Kremlin decided to try to wipe the country off the map.

This aspiration has not waned. As Zelensky told the European Parliament last month, Europe – with its rule of law, fair elections, open societies, and inviolable borders – is Ukraine’s “way home.” Ukrainians’ unity on this point should be enough to assuage US concerns about an “Afghan” scenario.

Another fear is that Russia will overwhelm Ukraine’s forces and capture Western weaponry. But this scenario is not supported by the facts on the ground. Though Russia has vastly more soldiers and weapons than Ukraine, it has suffered tremendous losses. While the precise figure is not certain, it is estimated that some 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded so far. With Russian forces’ logistics, tactics, and morale showing no signs of improvement, not even Kremlin propagandists believe that Russia can subdue all of Ukraine.

There is little doubt, however, that Putin will continue to sacrifice Russian troops and commit atrocities against Ukrainians for the chance to secure even minor symbolic victories. So, the war will drag on – unless Ukraine is given the means to accelerate its conclusion. That includes fighter jets. The pilot’s helmet that Zelensky presented to the speaker of the British Parliament last month bore these words: “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”

*Anna Husarska is a former senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee and a former senior political analyst at the International Crisis Group. Nikolay Viknianskyi is a humanitarian activist based in Odesa.

©: Project Syndicate, 2023.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial assistant: David Jenny

Guest essay: Anna Husarska and Nikolay Viknianskyi

Edited by: Paige Holt and Stephanie Nebehay