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Jean-Baptiste Richardier
General Director and co-founder of the Handicap International Federation

Jean-Baptiste Richardier
General Director and co-founder of the Handicap International Federation

This year, Groupe URD is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got to know Groupe URD.

I am a doctor, and the General Director of Handicap International Federation and co-founder of the association. We are both clients and partners of Groupe URD. As it happens, François Grünewald cut his teeth in humanitarian action in the field with Handicap International, at the Cambodian border. An excellent place to learn, believe me! Another aspect that we share is the fact that we are located outside Paris. We are among the few French organizations who have chosen to relocate to the provinces.

What do you perceive to be Groupe URD’s role, positioning and specific characteristics?

For a long time, Groupe URD was synonymous with François Grünewald. We would joke that François “carried his house around with him in his suitcase”. Groupe URD therefore has the image of an indefatigable character who very early on understood the issues of quality related to humanitarian action. Today, Groupe URD occupies the dialectic space between the necessity and the difficulty of establishing norms, without harming the necessary flexibility and creativity that is required in humanitarian responses. If it is too “corseted’, humanitarian action becomes ineffective. It is probably the form of international aid for which establishing norms is the most perilous, and at the same time it is necessary to tackle this issue. The originality of Groupe URD is to have encouraged French NGOs to adopt qualitative approaches in the toughest contexts. The three letters of U-R-D highlight the importance, over and above the emergency response, of preventing the consequences of crises by acting in favour of development aid. In the French-speaking context, Groupe URD has managed to raise awareness among NGOs who were more pre-occupied with the immediate effectiveness of aid, compared to Anglo-Saxon NGOs who were very keen on models and concepts, notably the integration of communities into project design. It is difficult to beat Anglo-Saxon NGOs in that field! And yet, Groupe URD decided to tackle it with the Quality COMPAS project. French NGOs invented the “Without Borders” approach to aid, one of the weaknesses of which is how local actors and their contribution to relief are taken into account. During the last two decades, Groupe URD has provided French NGOs with a space for conceptual innovation in this area.

Another area where Groupe URD has made a contribution is as a “vigilant agitator” devoted to analyzing how international aid evolves and capable of mobilizing and influencing the sector. They alerted us to the development of the SPHERE project, with its initial rigidity and its ambition to establish a universal method, or even a monopoly. Via “Synergie qualité’, the French response to this ambition to establish a single Anglo-Saxon model, the crusade led at the time by Groupe URD with the main French NGOs contributed to making SPHERE evolve, so that it is now much more pragmatic and useful to the humanitarian sector as a whole.

Groupe URD is also very open to innovation in relation to needs in the field, as can be seen from the development of the Sigmah project tested by Handicap International in Afghanistan. At Groupe URD there is a real desire to gather knowledge, to learn from the evaluation of practices and through in-depth research on specific themes and then to share it with the NGO movement.

Of course, it takes more than being visionary to succeed, but over the years Groupe URD has become a key player. Its ability to analyse and use knowledge productively means that it can claim to be a “think-tank” which is very centred around operational practices. As such, and more than Anglo-Saxon “think-tanks”, it has managed to bring together academic ambition and operational pragmatism.

How would you describe Groupe URD briefly/in a word?

The combination of academic ambition and operational pragmatism.

Do you have any anecdotes to share with us?

It concerns when François Grünewald began working in the humanitarian sector, at the time when Handicap International was also taking its first steps in the Cambodian refugee camps. We had left for some time, and we had left the keys to the house with François. When we came back, François had been up and down the border area and had visited the many different refugee camps, doing everything… except what we had asked him to do! Rather than making sure our fragile set up was running properly, he had launched himself into analysing and measuring the impact of the quality of our programmes… leaving aside day-to-day management. But I suppose, in the end, with hindsight, it is not so surprising…

How do you see Groupe URD in the future? What are your wishes for the future?

Above all, Groupe URD needs to maintain its course among French NGOs. Though the French humanitarian sector is turbulent and incapable of unity due to its cultural and identity-based characteristics, it is not just the product of indiscipline; it reflects a humanitarian sector which, rightly, refuses to be standardized. Nevertheless, this salutary refusal to go down the path to standardization needs to be given a framework, but without this being a source of opposition to change, of fixed solutions and lack of flexibility. On the contrary, if we want to ward off the advent of a “dictatorship of models” and encourage French-style humanitarian aid which is flexible and reactive, innovative and with a firm grip on the adaptations which need to be made in relation to contexts which are always different, French NGOs need to concert with each other and think and act together to propose a credible alternative. French NGOs are not keen to act in unison – or to establish markers, factors of convergence and indicators which would make it easier to get bearings and reproduce actions when this is appropriate – French NGOs need to pull themselves together. The key issue is the opposition between a fixed and standardised world, which is attractive to donors, and responses which are in keeping with the reality of each situation.
Groupe URD has a role to play to help resist the temptation of adopting a single model. This is not always a comfortable position; it sometimes involves taking knocks or having to spend periods in the wilderness. But the days when you were alone are over!