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Claire Pirotte
President of Groupe URD, Doctor who worked a lot for Médecins sans Frontières

Claire Pirotte
President of Groupe URD,
Doctor who worked a lot for Médecins sans Frontières

As a co-founder and the current President of Groupe URD, what have been the highlights of the Groupe URD adventure?

In 1993, the idea of creating Groupe URD emerged when I joined the Comité français de solidarité internationale (Comité Français Contre la Faim) to develop research into LRRD (linking relief, rehabilitation and development). At that time, there was no interaction between relief NGOs and development NGOs – they were two separate worlds. They did not have the same profile, their actions were conducted over different time periods and they did not even have the same ideas. I had carried out both relief and development operations, and I felt that the two needed to be linked. In 1993/1994 we therefore created a discussion group made up of 10 humanitarian NGOs and 10 development NGOs. We tried to understand what our differences were, with an update every 10 months. These meetings allowed us to see whether we really were too different, or if, on the contrary, there were opportunities.

We then wrote a report presenting 6 main differences between these two worlds (cf. Entre Urgence et Développement). Several central ideas were presented in this report: the notion of time (humanitarians act quickly, while developers take their time); issues of cost for beneficiaries (free of charge in humanitarian contexts, while developers tend to aim for cost recovery); specific or global actions; relations with individuals or groups (whereas the emergency phase focuses on medical aspects, the development phase looks at the individual in their social group); relations with local public authorities and relations with local organizations.

We realised that there was so much material to develop that we should not split up, particularly as we were dealing with the same population groups. At that time, François Grünewald and myself were no longer operating within the CFSI, but as an association, which was to become Groupe URD in its present form. We were working freelance and published the book, “Entre urgence et développement, pratiques humanitaires en questions” in 1997, published by Karthala. The publishers needed to deal with a legal entity, so we set up an official association.

Our definitions of the word crisis were different. A crisis is not a clap of thunder in a calm sky. There are always warning signs. And the post-crisis period is at least as important to manage, because it shapes the future. Aid and development funding was completely separate, which posed a problem, because when the emergency relief agencies left, it was impossible to move on to the rehabilitation phase.

At that time, Groupe URD worked solely on the issue of LRRD. The book got us known. The publishing of a collective work which included 30 different contributions added to our legitimacy. It was a unique and pioneering approach as there was no linking of relief and development before then. François had left the ICRC and had begun to work as a freelance consultant so that he could carry out missions for Groupe URD. That was when the first evaluations began.

We just wanted to show that our ideas were right and to try to influence humanitarian practices. At the time, we were working on a completely voluntary basis. We wrote research projects and then fought to get them implemented. Then both François and I began to give classes. Groupe URD was then approached by the government to take part in the Cooperation and Development Commission and by ECHO, which was becoming more structured at that time. We had some influence as we were specialized in the issue. In Anglo-Saxon countries, there was not the same split between relief and development NGOs, but despite this they did not cooperate.

Our first funds came from our activities. They allowed us to pay for the photocopier and the telephone. Then we got a very small amount of funding from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1997, when the “emplois jeunes” (youth employment scheme) arrived on the market, two of our staff had contracts of this kind. We moved to Plaisians in the same year, and “la Fontaine des Marins” became the headquarters of the association.

Another highlight for me was the launching of the Quality project and the very heated debates about issues of Quality, following the development of the Sphere project. From the beginning we opposed it. It was time to develop something else. Since the beginning, we have always been good at reacting to what is happening, and we have also sometimes been precursors. We often go against received ideas which have shown their limits but are nevertheless not revised.

I think that Groupe URD is both a thorn in the side of the sector and a lighthouse in the fog. In relation to quality, we were a thorn in its side. We fought against the new trend of standardization promoted by the Anglo-Saxon NGOs. It was difficult because they had so much more funding than us. The SPHERE project could have become the norm for everyone. After four years of operational research on quality in humanitarian action, and analyzing different types of crisis and the different operational sectors that exist, we developed the Quality COMPAS. Though people have recognised that it is an operational tool, it has never genuinely been applied. But we have also been a lighthouse in the fog, because we have allowed a lot of people to think differently about what they do. Our ideas have led to changes in practice. We have positioned ourselves concretely in the field.

Today, 20 years later, Groupe URD has reached a certain maturity. It is still a fighter, still very lively. An NGO director with 20 years of practical experience is not negligible. The three people who make up the core of the organisation have remained united, which is very rare in NGOs. There have never been any quarrels that have threatened the existence of Groupe URD, nor any power struggle or disagreement about strategy.

The challenges are the same: we have to fight against inertia. We have gained in recognition, we have more resources, but the basic issues have changed. We have managed to maintain the same strategy, without becoming a private consulting firm or a training institute. Humanitarian action has become more limited. Our research topics have changed because we have adapted to a world which has changed (Environment, Security, etc.).

In 20 years, I think organisations like Groupe URD will have a greater role. You always need someone who is able to take a step back from a situation to be able to analyse it. When you are an implementing organisation, this is no longer possible. And this distance is all the more important as crises get more complex…

When we moved to the Drôme, everyone said we were mad. It was before internet and the TGV line between Paris and Marseille. To write the book, we sent floppy disks by post, which did not prevent us from making progress. We have never made a mistake in terms of positioning. Today, everyone envies us about being in a rural environment. I would say we practice “intelligent innovation”.

New issues are more general and affect not only the humanitarian sector, but other areas of life. The humanitarian sector simply reflects these crises (economic crises, for example).

To conclude, the other highlights of my time with Groupe URD have been - in no particular order: the launch of the Quality COMPAS; the hiring of the 10th full time member of staff; the opening of the first Observatory (Kabul); and the INSPIRE project with DG ECHO.