National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are neither governmental institutions nor wholly separate non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  Their relationship to the authorities is defined by their role as “auxiliaries” and by the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Definition of the auxiliary role

According to the Statutes of the Movement, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are considered to be “auxiliary to the public authorities in the humanitarian field.”

This auxiliary role can be described as “a specific and distinctive partnership, entailing mutual responsibilities and benefits, based on international and national laws, in which the national public authorities and the National Society agree on the areas in which the National Society supplements or substitutes public humanitarian services[.]” Resolution 2, 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (2007).

In order to be a recognised member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a National Society’s auxiliary role must be recognised by the national legislation of its country.

Origins of the auxiliary role

The auxiliary role is tied to the founding idea of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.  In 1859, Henri Dunant encountered the aftermath of the battle of Solferino, where the French/Sardinian and Austrian armies had clashed, leaving thousands killed and injured, with very little medical care or other support available to those strewn about the field.

After supporting an improvised response with local villagers on the spot, Dunant later wrote about his life-changing experience in “A Memory of Solferino,” in which he called, among other things, for the creation, “in times of peace and quiet” of “relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers.”  These groups would “naturally remain inactive in peacetime.  But they would always be organised and ready for the possibility of war.”

This idea animated the creation of the first National Red Cross Societies (later also joined by National Red Crescent Societies), whose role was described in a resolution of the first Geneva Conference of 1863, as committees of volunteers devoted to “assisting the Army Medical Services” and acting, in the battlefield, under military command.  This facet of the auxiliary role – seconding volunteers for an exclusively medical service under military command – remains one part of the identity of many National Societies, and is enshrined in international humanitarian law, including in the First Geneva Convention of 1949.

However, demand very quickly grew on National Societies to do more than supply volunteers to militaries when wars strike, in order to address humanitarian need in peacetime.  Thus, as early as 1869, the 2nd International Conference of the Red Cross adopted a resolution calling on National Societies to also provide relief “in case of public calamity which, like war, demands immediate and organised assistance.”  As the range of public services provided by National Societies has grown, so too has the expectations around the auxiliary role.

The auxiliary role today

Today, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies provide a variety of humanitarian services, both in situations of war and peace, contribute to public health and social services, and support the development of their countries.

Their specific relationship with governments has grown with the nature of the services they provide.  At the same time, the Fundamental Principles of the Movement require that National Societies remain independent and able to act impartially and neutrally, animated solely by need. Of course, the extent to which National Societies are able to support the humanitarian development goals of the public authorities is also dependent on its capacity as an organisation, which varies from country to country.

The auxiliary role is partially described in the foundational national Red Cross or Red Crescent law or decree, which is required prior to the recognition of any National Society as a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. However, for the auxiliary relationship to work well, it has often been important that the main activity areas of the National Society – in disaster risk management, emergency response, public health and social services – also be described in sectoral laws, policies, plans and agreements, so that they are well coordinated with the work of relevant ministries and partners.

Many states offer direct and indirect support to their National Societies in relation to the auxiliary role, including direct financial contributions, tax exemptions and fiscal concessions, fiscal incentive for donors, and in-kind contributions (such as office space), among others.

Frequently asked questions about the auxiliary role

If National Societies are “auxiliaries”, does this mean that they are part of government?

No. National Societies have a duty to consider seriously any request by their public authorities to carry out humanitarian activities within their mandate. However, they are not directly part of government, and must act at all times in accordance with the Fundamental Principles of the Movement, including the Principle of Independence (meaning that they must retain sufficient autonomy to act solely on the basis of need in an impartial and neutral manner).

Are National Societies non-governmental organisations (NGOs)?

No. National Societies are not considered to be NGOs because they have a specific legal connection to the public authorities through their National Red Cross or Red Crescent act or decree (and is required by the Statutes of the Movement, which have been approved by all state parties to the Geneva Conventions).  This link (which is described as the auxiliary status) places them in a unique, hybrid situation between the spheres of government and NGO.

Why should National Societies be treated differently from NGOs?

NGOs play a critical role in supporting development and bringing humanitarian aid. National Societies often partner with like-minded NGOs to meet common objectives in support of vulnerable people in their communities. Many NGOs also partner productively with public authorities on humanitarian objectives. However, the partnership between National Societies and their public authorities is distinct, in light of their unique legal connection and in light of the 150-year tradition of state interaction with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

For National Societies
If you are a volunteer or staff person of a National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society, you can find additional resources about the auxiliary role on Fednet.