Last week at swissnex San Francisco, we were delighted to host an engrossing conversation between Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce; human rights activist Clemantine Wamariya, and Fast Forward president and co-founder, Kevin Barenblat. The discussion, moderated by Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Katherine Maher, looked at listening and collaboration as core tenets to guide the rapidly shifting contours of humanitarianism for a world in crisis.

Two themes emerged from the talk, both pointing to the need to re-evaluate the meaning of humanitarian work. Tech brings rapid changes to the needs and scale of the crises we must respond to; but the solutions, the panelists agreed, are fundamental: rather than hope for technology to solve our problems, we must rediscover the power of radical listening and collaboration.


The misalignment between the needs of a local population and the aid provided by NGOs is a consequence of good intentions with a too-narrow focus, said Yves Daccord, Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross. With massive changes in the world’s political and economic order, and technology changing partnerships across the globe, humanitarian organizations are facing new challenges.

Part of the solution is an embrace of collaboration with affected communities.

“Working in close proximity with people allows us to engage directly with groups as challenging as the Taliban or the Islamic state,” Daccord said. Humanitarians can no longer look to the state to intervene or regulate responses to global crises or conflicts. Exacerbating this problem is an imbalance in how war is conducted: an emphasis on remote war, with few soldiers, and few consequences for the nation conducting it from a distance.

That’s why, Daccord argues, trust is a vital currency for humanitarian efforts. About $15-20 billion per year is spent on humanitarian relief right now, he says. That professional humanitarian community risks irrelevance without a radical adaptation of its methods. Relevance, he says, comes from listening.

“If I look at the world through a prism of children or water only, the type of response I produce will be the type of response I’d like to produce as an expert in water or children,” he says. That creates a misalignment in response, but also neglects the identity of those affected – those who are often written off as “victims,” and left out of the process of determining their own needs.

Daccord suggests that aid can often miss the most important requests of these victims: as an example, he suggests the need for digital preservation of health records, memories, family photos and documents. WiFi, he says, is often the first thing people ask for, even before water.

But just as technology can create a vast distance between populations, it can also connect them.

The radical act of listening

Human rights activist and storyteller Clemantine Wamariya spoke to the act of radical listening within human rights activism and relief.

“Radical listening is having that moment where you need someone to listen to you, ask… how can I connect to you on a human level?” she says. “Where you aren’t a victim, but a human who is longing for support.”

In her work as a human rights activist and storyteller, she emphasized this shift away from the lens of victimhood. As a child, she fled the Rwandan genocide. The people who helped her, the “thought leaders” in her community, were not the educated people with Ph.D’s, she said, but people who “got machine guns because we were starving.”

“You can treat the wound,” she says, “but if you know exactly what happened before the wound appeared, then you know the solution.”

Global and local connections

There are global challenges, but local challenges, too. Rethinking approaches to humanitarian causes can create unexpected responses in the business sector, too.

“The cities are a reference,” says Daccord. He said mayors are often focused on much more pragmatic responses and solutions, because they reflect a local community’s needs.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Lynne Benioff, in partnership with the city of San Francisco and other donors, announced a $30 million pledge to help build homes for those most affected by San Francisco’s housing crisis. That reflects a long history of engagement on a local level, but also within the community of Salesforce employees.

“It’s not just about listening to others, but also to myself,” said Benioff. “To ask that question: ‘What can I do to make things better?’” The answer to that question, 17 years ago, was the 1-1-1 model: 1% of profit, 1% of equity and 1% of employee time donated to other non-profit organizations. That’s lead to 20,000 nonprofits using Salesforce services for free; $150 million in grants to NGOs and non-profits, and paid volunteerism to employees that has added up to millions of hours of community service.

“We’re in a time of change and transformation,” Benioff says. “But it’s also very much about the individual. Are we willing to step back and listen to our own hearts to ask what one thing we can do to make things a little bit better?”

Kevin Barenblat is the co-founder and president of Fast Forward, a tech accelerator for non-profits, says there are risks and benefits to relying on technology. He emphasized that the reliance should always be on solving problems with the technology and capacities we have at hand, rather than developing solutions at a later date.

“How do we keep the human part of humanitarianism?” he asks. “Humans need to be responsible for solving the problems humans create.”

A time of crisis

“We’re living in a time of crisis,” Daccord said. He said that people may not be interested in helping the ‘other’ in a time when they feel insecure. He feels that nothing has improved in years.

“Each of us can do more,” he says. “But doing more is not enough. We need radical collaboration.” That means reaching out to actors who may not be easy to work with, who may have different ideas and goals than traditional actors.

“Relationships seem to shift dramatically,” said Wamariya. “But maybe the relationship was always one way, but the listening was a little bit different.”

It isn’t all hopeless, said Daccord. The solution always comes back to empathy.

“If your enemy is wounded, you still look at him as a human being,” he said. “It’s about how do we, in our life, in our businesses, push these issues? If we all do this, we’ll all make a huge step forward.”

Everyone a humanitarian

We’re looking for suggestions for unexpected humanitarians: those who work with local communities, perhaps developing technology or practices that connect actors and affected populations in ways that allow for radical listening and collaboration.  

We hope you’ll share your stories, news clippings, suggestions, photos and more, using #YOUmanitarian. We’ll help share these stories at our events and elsewhere. You can also email ideas to

Photo: Yves Daccord during the “Everyone a Humanitarian” keynote at swissnex SF. CC-BY-SA by swissnexSF/Myleen Hollero.