George Rupp
President & CEO, International Rescue Committee

George Rupp Introduces the International Rescue Committee

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The refugee expert looks back to the IRC’s roots in World War II and describes global warming’s role in Darfur.

George Rupp

George Rupp has been president of the International Rescue Committee since July 2002. As the IRC’s chief executive officer, Dr. Rupp oversees the agency’s relief and rehabilitation operations in 25 countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs throughout the United States.  In addition, he leads the IRC’s advocacy efforts in Washington, Geneva, Brussels and other capitals on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people. His responsibilities regularly take him to IRC program sites in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Before joining the IRC, Dr. Rupp was president of Columbia University. During his nine-year tenure, he focused on enhancing undergraduate education, on strengthening the relationship of the campus to surrounding communities and New York City as a whole, and on increasing the university’s international orientation. At the same time, he completed both a financial restructuring of the university and a $2.84 billion fundraising campaign that achieved eight successive records in dollars raised.

Prior to his time at Columbia, Dr. Rupp served as president of Rice University, where in the course of his eight years applications for admission almost tripled, federal research support more than doubled, and the value of the Rice endowment increased by more than $500 million to $1.25 billion.

Before going to Rice, Dr. Rupp was the John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity and dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Under his leadership, the curriculum of the school was revised to address more directly the pluralistic character of contemporary religious life. Further developments included new programs in women’s studies and religion, Jewish-Christian relations, and religion and medicine.

Born in New Jersey of immigrant parents, Dr. Rupp has studied and conducted research for extended periods in both Europe and Asia.  He was awarded an A.B. from Princeton University in 1964, a B.D. from Yale Divinity School in 1967, and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972.  He is the author of numerous articles and five books, including Globalization Challenged:  Commitment, Conflict, and Community.


Question: What has changed about humanitarian crises since the IRC was founded?


George Rupp: Well, I think it’s fair that the situation has changed a lot over those 75 years.  At the time we were… we began, we were rescuing refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe and helping them to resettle in this country.  We still do that, we settle refugees.  We’ve got 23 offices across the United States but the vast majority of uprooted people are no longer, have any prospect of being resettled in the United States, there are 40 million of them and what has changed over the 40 years is from the Second World War, a single major war that implicated countries from around the world.  We’ve moved into an era where the dominant pattern of war is… within a country and as much as we think of the Second World War as a… as the major war of the 20th Century, in the end, it lasted only a little over 5 years whereas conflicts today can last decades and involve many, many thousand of deaths over a long period of time and that makes it a very different situation from a kind of clearly demarcated war that nation states are involved in. 




Question: How many refugees are there in the world today?


George Rupp: There are about 40 million uprooted people, they’re refugees if they’ve crossed an international boundary by the definitions of the UN and they’re called internally displaced people if they’re… if they’re within their own country but for all practical purposes, they’re in the same situation.  If they fled violence, usually with only what they can carry and the demand, the challenge is to help them get back on their feet that very often take an extended period of time.  So 40 million, take the combined metropolitan population… the populations of the major metropolitan areas across the country and you’d get to something approximating 40 million people.  So Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, throw in a few more and you might get close to 40 million. 



Question: What will drive future refugee crises?


George Rupp: We normally get into a situation which we’re involved because of an emergency and so we have an emergency response unit that goes in very quickly.  I think it’s fair to say that most of the emergencies we’ve responded to in the last couple of decades have been caused by conflict.  Usually, conflict within a single country rather than between countries.  That’s been the driver for our immediate past feud decades but we anticipate going forward that there will be increasing refugee or movement of people because of climate changes, that’s already evident in some places we were involved.  For example in Sudan, we’ve all heard about the conflict in Darfur and it’s rightly attributed to ethnic conflicts between Arab-speaking militias and local… Arab-speaking pastoralists and their allied militias and then local farmers but an additional driver is that the desert is moving south so the pastoralists used to have enough land for their cattle their graze, as the desert has moved further south, they too have started to encroach on what was formerly agricultural land.  So there’s the beginnings of having the driver be conflict but conflict in part generated through the… through global warming.