Accepted Paper:

Historicising multilingual professional identities at the International Committee of the Red Cross   


Maria Rosa Garrido (University of Fribourg)

Paper short abstract:

This research explores historical transformations of multilingual professional identities for/by ICRC delegates. The intersection between institutional trajectory and mobile careers constructs a form of cosmopolitan capital based on English as a lingua franca and language learning in the field.

Paper long abstract:

The goal of this presentation is to explore historical transformations in the construction of multilingual professional identities for and by delegates at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with headquarters in Geneva (Switzerland). It investigates the intersection between the ICRC's trajectory and individual careers, with a focus on multilingualism and language learning in delegates' mobile trajectories after the ICRC's opening to an international labour market in 1992. The data comprise ethnographic interviews with ICRC delegates who were active between 1970 and 2015 triangulated with recruitment materials published between 1989 and 2016.

The opening of delegate positions to non-Swiss nationals gradually transformed institutional linguistic requirements and delegates' repertoires. The ICRC was historically a Francophone institution, with English required for expatriate positions, and "internationalisation" reinforced English a lingua franca. New generations come from more diverse linguistic backgrounds and show more interest in language learning for humanitarian work. The delegates' biographies play a great role in their employability since English and French are institutionally required and tested, with working languages like Arabic or Spanish as assets. Concurrently, their humanitarian careers shape and are shaped by their linguistic repertoires since delegates learn new languages (e.g. Tamil & Arabic) during their missions, often in response to unplanned linguistic needs, and are allocated missions owing to their linguistic competences.

The ICRC constructs entrepreneurial selves whose "cosmopolitan capital" (Igarashi and Saito 2014, Jansson 2016) allows them to navigate international contexts through English, as in UN agencies, and to (minimally) learn local languages in the field.

Panel Work02
Transnationalism and work-life (im)mobilites in the UN system and beyond