top of page
  • Writer's pictureurbanology

Geneva: humanitarian capital of yesterday and tomorrow?

Gilles Carbonnier is professor of development economics at the Graduate Institute (IHEID) and Vice President of the ICRC since 2018. Author of a monograph on the Economics of Humanitarianism and with a long field experience, he recalls the history of Geneva as a humanitarian capital and the challenges this unique location is facing in a context of fast, global changes.

Geneva is one of the cities that hosts the most international organisations: it is home to 39 international organisations and 431 non-governmental organisations (NGOs). A lot of them are related to the humanitarian field. How come Geneva became one of the world’s humanitarian capital cities?

A Genevan pioneer for humanitarian action

Gilles Carbonnier starts the urbanology talk with what he calls the “almost mythical” story of international Geneva: the story of a young aristocrat and entrepreneur who chased Napoleon III on the battlefield to ask him for a permit he needed to start the exploitation of his mill in Algeria. Henri Dunant arrived in Solferino on the 24th of June 1859 and found 40000 soldiers injured, dying without help after one of the bloodiest battles in history, where around 300000 men fought against each other. This horror inspired Dunant with a very singular idea: the wounded soldier should not be seen as a friend or foe, only as a man needing medical care. Back in Geneva, he wrote “Memories of Solferino” in which he proposed the creation in each nation of a society that would bring immediate assistance to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Dunant is not the first person who had this idea: a few years before, Florence Nightingale created a nursery school during the Crimean war following the same aim. However, he was the first who could anchor this idea in the political scene of the time.

After this dramatic starting point, the story continues. Dunant mobilised members of the elite in Geneva to create the first Red Cross Society and to bring together the monarchs of his time to sign the first Geneva treaty to alleviate suffering of wounded soldiers on the battlefield. After that, different national Red Cross societies were founded in different European countries. The young Red Cross movement evolved with experiences of further conflicts: during the war between France and Prussia, it became obvious that the respective national red cross societies had difficulties to maintain neutrality in their action. This observation led to the creation of a neutral committee: the ICRC, based in Geneva.

The League of Nations in Geneva

During WWI, the movement continued its development: the ICRC created the first central tracing agency (CTA) to gather information about war prisoners and help families find their relatives and loved ones. And in 1919, the IFRC was founded to give a humanitarian response to situations not directly linked with armed conflict. In the narrative of the humanitarian and international Geneva, the CTA is said to have potentially tipped the balance towards Geneva in the final decision of the location of the headquarters of the League of Nations. The neutral status of Switzerland and its stability was also a strong asset.

With the League of Nations in Geneva, the city became a hub: journalists, spies, humanitarian NGOs… all gathered in this international centrality. In 1927, the Graduate Institute was founded to train civil servants and employees for international relations and the humanitarian sector.

After WWII, the political HQ of the UN developed in New-York City, which became the centre of political negotiations in humanitarian and security matters. However, Geneva remained the centre of humanitarian action. A few Genevans were also key in establishing modern humanitarianism, such as Jean Pictet, who defined and commented on the fundamental principles of the red cross, which are now fundamental principles for humanitarian action around the world.

The challenges of the present and the future - discussion

Nowadays, ICRC faces many challenges that require a reorganisation of its structure and actions. The world is becoming multipolar, so it is no more possible to keep all activities at the HQ in Geneva. Since the attacks on international organisations in Bagdad, including the ICRC, during the Gulf War in 2003, the "Right Bank" of Geneva has been increasingly bunkered to prevent attacks. This process has closed the district to the rest of the world, which is a paradox for an international district. At the same time, a tunnel project, the "Route des Nations", will reshape the flow of people through the ICRC district with increasing car traffic isolating the ICRC buildings from the Jardin des Nations.

How can the ICRC continue to be faithful to Henri Dunant and Jean Pictet, and keep the humanitarian goal at the heart of its actions?

How can the ICRC adapt to such a complex context?

One of the answers to these questions is a new organisation of the ICRC area in Geneva. Urbz has started to work with the ICRC to create a humanitarian hub open to the city and the world. This new hub should emphasise the ICRC's field work and values. The new territorial identity aims to become healthier, more climate-friendly and welcoming, in order to connect virtually and physically ICRC buildings, such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum or the library, with people from all over the world.

The discussions highlighted the crucial need to develop a new global urban vision for the Quartier des Nations in order to adapt it to new local and global contemporary challenges.


bottom of page