Where Innovation meets Humanitarianism

In 1863, the observations and writings of Henri Dunant, a young Swiss man, led to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). For more than 150 years, the organization has been at the forefront of humanitarian action, providing help and hope to those affected by war and emergencies worldwide.

In an ever-changing world, not only the challenges, but also the means to tackle them take new courses.

On May 8, the launch of the ICRC Collaborative Platform at swissnex Boston in Cambridge Massachusetts has rung the bell for a new chapter in the collaboration of humanitarian action and innovation, with the aim of identifying new solutions and approaches to some of today’s most pressing challenges linked to war and armed violence.

The words spoken at the launch event, hosted by Novartis in Cambridge, highlighted the sheer importance of both humanitarian action and innovation in today’s world, and the need to connect the two. Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among those who spoke at the event, crediting the noble spirit of the Red Cross as an inspiration to pursue a career in public service in 1962.

From left to right: Swiss Ambassador to the United States Martin Dahinden, Assistant Secretary of Business Development and International Trade for the State of Massachusetts Nam Pham and Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

“The launch of the Collaborative Platform is a first for the ICRC. And it is an important first for us”, said ICRC Vice President Christine Beerli in front of an engaged and attentive audience at the Novartis Cambridge Campus. “It is a first, that we do in a region where we know there’s a lot of excellence. Here, in the Greater Boston area, we can pick the brain of the world’s smartest. With swissnex, we will be able to have a meeting point for open and inspiring discussions.”

ICRC Vice President Christine Beerli

Martin Dahinden, who prior to his posting as Swiss Ambassador to the U.S. served as the head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, stressed how the ICRC Collaborative Platform “brings two things together that are very much at the heart of Switzerland — humanitarian commitment and innovation”.

Swiss Ambassador to the U.S. Martin Dahinden

“To me [the ICRC is] the best innovation that Switzerland has come up with and it has transformed at least 300 million lives”, stated Nam Pham, Assistant Secretary of Business Development and International Trade for the State of Massachusetts. “I’m here with the gratitude of a former refugee from Vietnam. In a state of hopelessness, I saw the red cross.” Mr. Pham concluded with a thought about Boston as a hub of innovation; “You came to the right place.”

Assistant Secretary of Business Development and International Trade for the State of Massachusetts Nam Pham

A discussion highlighting the ICRC’s work in Afghanistan, as reflected by Alberto Cairo, Head of the local ICRC Orthopedic Program, and by Jess Markt, coach of the Afghan national wheelchair basketball teams, rounded off the evening. In conversation with NPR’s Tom Ashbrook, Cairo recounted how over the course of 30 years, he has helped over 150,000 disabled Afghans to work walk again, by providing them with locally manufactured prosthetics “for people without legs, made by people without legs”. Around 90% of the people employed by Cairo are themselves disabled. He called that a form of positive discrimination.

From left to right: NPR Journalist Tom Ashbrook, Head of the local ICRC Orthopedic Program Alberto Cairo and Coach of the Afghan national wheelchair basketball teams Jess Markt

Since 2009, Cairo is teaming up with Jess Markt, a Colorado native who is himself disabled and works together with the ICRC to bring basketball-bound men and women to Afghanistan, South Sudan, India and Cambodia. When asked about possible innovation that could ease the challenges he sees himself faced with in the field, he responded, “we need to find ways to stimulate an economic openness to involving and including people with disabilities. People are amazed by the work we do, by our wheelchair basketball matches — but how do we get those same people, when do go back to work, to employ people with disabilities?”

“What I saw at MIT today, the research that is being done here in Cambridge, gives me hope. It showed, that we are not forgotten”, Alberto Cairo added, making reference to the need of collaboration and innovation.

Head of the local ICRC Orthopedic Program Alberto Cairo speaking
Engaged and attentive audience at the Novartis Cambridge Campus

A word from swissnex Boston CEO Felix Moesner: “We at swissnex Boston are very much honored to host and support the ICRC Collaborative Platform, which perfectly matches our mission to connect the dots among academic key stakeholders of Boston’s thriving ecosystem”, says Advisory Committee Member and swissnex CEO Felix Moesner (pictured, second from right).

From left to right: Swiss Ambassador to the U.S. Martin Dahinden, ICRC Vice President Christine Beerli, swissnex Boston CEO Felix Moesner and Assistant Secretary of Business Development and International Trade for the State of Massachusetts Nam Pham
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