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The Young Advisory Board of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum shares, in this new article, a glimpse of the exchange it had the chance to have with Coline Rapneau, ex-ICRC, now Protection from Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment (PSEAH Manager) Programme Director at CHS Alliance and Co-Active Coach.

Coline Rapneau, currently PSEAH Manager at CHS Alliance and Co-Active Coach, started her career in 2004 in the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda as Legal Assistant in the Chambers and then in the Defence Counsel, before joining the ICRC in 2007. She spent 13 years with the ICRC, half of which was spent in the field as a protection delegate (Guinea-Conakry, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Cambodia), before taking up the position of Sexual Violence Advisor in the Operations Department at Geneva headquarters in 2013 and then Crowdfunding Project Manager in the Communications Department.

Coline holds a Master’s degree (DEA) in international relations, specialising in international law, from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID, Geneva).

How did you feel about humanitarian work before you went into the field? Did you expect to have the experience you did?

When I joined the ICRC in 2007, at the age of 27, I had my ideals about humanitarian work, an incredible motivation and a desire to make a significant impact in the field. I imagined the world of humanitarian work to be perfect, idyllic. Despite meeting some absolutely wonderful people, I was dealt a pretty heavy blow when I arrived in Guinea Conakry for my first mission.

Not only because I had psychologically conditioned myself to go to a war context, but in the end I found myself in a development situation, for which I had not really been prepared by the ICRC during the four-week training given to all new delegates (at the time called Ecogia). But also because I came across some people who, as everywhere, have their own past, their own experiences, their own personality and who, for some, have developed rather negative defence mechanisms over the course of their missions and their own experience… As a result, they have an extremely harsh and disobliging, not to say disrespectful attitude. As a delegate in my first mission, still young and full of hopes, it’s cold. Even though this mission, for all the other incredible encounters I have had, has been fantastic in personal and professional terms.

What I took away from it, at that time, was that humanitarians, whoever they are, are just a reflection of society. It is a sample of what exists everywhere else. The humanitarian world is not better or worse than the private world. It is a human cosmos, with its dynamics, its dysfunctions, its advantages and disadvantages, quite simply. Except that we find ourselves in environments where emotions, due to the situation (war, stress, pressure, fears or isolation, limited security) are at their peak…

Could you explain to us how you concretely prepare yourself to go on mission? And the return, how does it happen?

I would say that you are never really prepared for what you are going to see, do or hear in prison for example, in the field or whatever. It depends on the person, but you tend to develop your own internal means of protection. There are those who open up to others, who are jovial, and those who become hypersensitive, solitary or aggressive. In ICRC training, we are encouraged to compare our situation to that of a plane in distress: we put on our oxygen mask first if we want to be able to fully help others. This is a beautiful metaphor that is very true in our profession. One cannot expect to be well and fully available with people affected by conflicts/violent/vulnerable situations and to give 100% of oneself, if one is not well with oneself.

In my opinion, it is essential that every humanitarian returning from the field, whoever he or she may be, has the possibility of being followed by a professional (psychologist), even if he or she does not need it in the end. The Australian Red Cross in particular has this service in place, if I’m not mistaken. Being monitored provides a dedicated and protected space that gives the returning staff the opportunity to unload their emotions/experiences, both operational and human. They can be listened to and considered.

Do you think the general public is told enough about the mental health and well-being of humanitarians? Is there a good way to do it?

It’s definitely more talked about than it was 10 years ago. There has been a lot of talk in the sector in recent years.

Humanitarians are two to three times more likely than the general population to suffer burnout, develop mental illness or develop dangerous resistance mechanisms (such as alcoholism). CHS Alliance in a January 2020 report “working well” explains and analyses the reasons for this. More than operational stress factors, it is organisational factors that are the main cause of these consequences on the well-being of humanitarian workers; bureaucratic red tape; dysfunctional or toxic working environments with a clear lack of trust, communication, space to express oneself freely, and alignment of values. All this creates situations in which unacceptable behaviour becomes commonplace. How we work, how we treat our peers and ourselves (attitudes, thinking, values, etc.) has an undeniable impact on what we do.

Finally, how does humanitarian action concern us all, here and now, in our everyday lives?

Humanitarian action is not just about what happens fifteen or twenty thousand kilometres away. It is not necessarily trying to “save the world”. In the word humanitarian, there is the word human… it’s a whole. Humanitarianism begins at home, at the foot of one’s door, and applies at all times. Helping an elderly neighbour, for example, to do his shopping in times of need. Humanitarianism is tolerance, solidarity; it means being able to respect your neighbour, whoever he or she may be. It means being benevolent; it means learning not to judge. It is creating space for the other to express himself. It means listening fully, which goes beyond simply hearing or pretending to know… it means understanding what may be happening and being there for the other person.

The day I joined the ICRC in August 2007, before going to the Ecogia centre in Collex Bossy, we visited the museum. At the time, it was still the old version, before it became more interactive. I remember that there was this phrase from Confucius written down in front of a work of art and it said “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you”. It was an adage that was already very dear to me. But that day, I understood that this was also humanitarianism… And that this principle can be applied in the field, at headquarters, in the street, as well as at home with one’s family, one’s children, or one’s entourage. This is humanitarianism in the here and now.


                The Young Advisory Board would like to thank Coline once again for the kindness with which she answered its questions and would like to propose here, for those who are interested, to go deeper into the issues discussed through two links: