“The pandemic comes on top of other crises managed by the ICRC"
Every year EPFL hands out two Alumni Awards to former graduates who have led exceptional careers. One of this year’s winners is Robert Mardini, whose hard work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has resulted in him being named its new Director General in March 2020.
The ICRC has always been part of Mardini’s life, starting in his childhood during the civil war in Lebanon. Years later, in 1996, when he was about to complete his Master’s degree in civil engineering at EPFL, he saw an ICRC booth at the Forum EPFL job fair. “I wondered what the Red Cross was doing there. Why would they want to hire engineers?” he recalls. The answer was simple: because many ICRC projects require significant engineering know-how. Mardini therefore applied for the job, and was selected to join the ICRC’s water and habitat team in the field.
For the ICRC, the “field” consists of over 100 countries involved in armed conflict, where the organization helps protect the local population. Mardini’s first assignment was in Rwanda in 1997, just a few years after the genocide. He and his team set up drinking water systems in the country’s main cities to serve the people detained in Rwanda’s overcrowded, insalubrious prisons. In 1998 Mardini began working on another project, this time in Iraq. These early assignments developed his engineering skills and planted the seeds of what would become his chief assets in building a career at the ICRC: the ability to work hand in hand with local communities to identify their needs; the dexterity to conduct negotiations and build diplomatic ties with parties that often have opposing interests; and the agility to manage dangerous situations and assure people’s safety in perilous environments.
Mardini steadily moved up the ranks at the ICRC, becoming Regional Director for the Near and Middle East in 2012 – in the middle of the Arab Spring – and Head of the ICRC Delegation to the United Nations in New York in 2018. He took over as Director General in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic; his first day on the job, 17 March 2020, was also the first day of Switzerland’s partial lockdown. “The pandemic comes on top of many other crises that the ICRC is dealing with, including armed conflicts and climate change,” he says. Those armed conflicts have not abated despite the pandemic, meaning COVID-19 is putting already vulnerable people even more at risk. The ICRC’s work is more vital than ever, yet the countries that fund it are now being hit by the global economic slowdown.
In light of all these challenges, how does Mardini view the future? “Today the whole world is connected. That technology will be essential for staying informed about the difficulties local communities are facing and for determining the most effective ways to help them,” he says. Despite its risks, digital technology has other benefits as well, such as for protecting the personal data of individuals in danger and helping reunite families that have been separated. In this regard, the technical skills that Mardini learned at EPFL will be essential. But his time there left a lasting impression in other ways as well. “EPFL is where I learned how to think analytically and approach problems from different angles. One my professors – François Frey – told us: ‘I’m here to teach you how to break problems down and find solutions’. That statement has become one of my mottos,” says Mardini.
Now at the head of a 20,000-strong organization, the problems that Mardini faces are just as political as they are technical. However, that hasn’t changed his analytical approach. So what advice would he give to the next generation of engineers? “You now have all the technical skills you need. What will make the difference in your career is how you treat people. Listen carefully, build trust and don’t be afraid to take risks and make mistakes – those missteps will make you even stronger. In both your engineering work and decision-making, always consider how your choices will affect people.” Valuable advice for new graduates eager to embark on careers of their own.
Mardini will officially receive his Alumni Award at noon on 13 November 2020. You can watch the event live online.