A real humanitarian — Interview with Jan Egeland
For more than twenty-five years, he has devoted his career to humanitarianism, human rights and peace-work, either through the United Nations, the Norwegian Government or the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and other non-governmental institutions. He has been an active partner in a number of peace processes, and to his list of credits is the Norwegian channel between Israel and the PLO, which he co-initiated and co-organized, as well as the peace negotiations in Guatemala.
“People should have the same human values no matter where they come from, no matter what they do.” During the Tsunami crisis, he urged the rich countries, or the developing countries, to donate more funds for the victims. Never before in the history of the United Nations was so much money pledged as then. Since the Tsunami tragedy, his face has been seen recurrently on CNN, NBC, TSR, etc. In other words, he has become a new favourite among the journalists. The reason is that he tends to be outspoken and direct. Receiving us in his office, he kindly takes the time to respond to all our questions. He starts by telling us about the hectic months since he was appointed Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. We have all heard about the humanitarian crises in Darfur, the Congo, C?te d’Ivoire, Haiti, the Locust crisis in Africa, natural disasters, the Tsunami, etc.
Q: Is there anything in particular you would like to draw people’s attention to?
A: Over recent years, modern technologies have improved—satellite telephones, better food, better equipment, better trained personnel—and we can provide assistance quicker, but at the same time the difficulties and threats against humanitarian workers are increasing. It might seem rather surprising, but there are many cases when we are not allowed to provide assistance. I have here something we call the access matrix. This is a map that shows the roads that the convoys are allowed to use in the case of a humanitarian crisis. So we do not have as much freedom as people might imagine.
There are still the forgotten disasters. It’s a fact that 90% of the world’s attention is given to 10% of the world’s disasters. Those disasters that have a strategic importance receive more attention than the others. So one important aspect of my work is to try and put the forgotten ones on the agenda. We managed to bring the Darfur crisis to the forefront. Among the forgotten ones, you could mention the Central African Republic, C?te d’Ivoire and Guinea. In Northern Uganda, you have up to 1.6 million persons displaced by the conflict with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for its campaigns of lootings, murders, mutilations and abduction of children to serve its militia. To provide context, the number of internally displaced persons in the area is close to that of Darfur, but the plight of Ugandan children is particularly troubling.
Q: Do you ever get discouraged?
A: No, on the contrary. What I see is that with limited resources, we are able to do quite a lot, and that’s indeed a positive thing. With US$1 worth of aid you can vaccinate a child, or feed a whole family or give them water. I would, however, like to pay tribute to the positive work that many of the Norwegian humanitarian voluntary organizations do. It is a pleasure sitting here in New York and seeing the good work that the Norwegian Red Cross, Kirkensn?ds hjep, Folkehjepen, etc., do and they are there, present, whenever needed.
Q: Often there is a fear that you create people who are dependent on foreign aid, and that they never become self-sufficient.
A: Of course, that is always a danger, but we really encourage people to be self-reliant. We would, for instance, not give people food if there is already local production of food. We tend to give them grain or agricultural assistance so that, once they return home, refugees can start to grow crops and become self-sufficient again.
Q. Don’t you think it is paradoxical that when the foreign humanitarian agencies come in to assist a region, the prices on housing, food, etc., rise?
A: Well, that is due to the factors of supply and demand. However, the real danger lies in not stimulating local production and sustainability. If there is more demand for food, at least there are incentives for the local population to go back to agricultural production. As you might be aware, in most of these countries the agricultural sector is the predominant economic sector.
Q: Africa has recently been described as the forgotten continent. Do you ever think Africa as such will ever get out of the poverty and misery that it is facing today?
A: There are several countries that have managed to improve their situations. In the South, as a general rule, things have improved a great deal. Nobody today will ask for funds for floods or for hunger in India. I remember, for instance, one of the famines that occurred when I was quite young. So if we all put our efforts together, there is no reason why Africa should not find a way out of the difficult situation that it is in today. So I remain optimistic.
I realise the importance of the United Nations, both today and tomorrow. It is the only global organization in which everybody believes and wants to be part of. The organization is the only one working both for security, peace, development, humanitarian assistance, etc.
Q: Rumours circulate, especially in Norway, that if Mr Stoltenberg wins the elections in Norway in September this year, you will become the future Minister of Foreign Affairs?
A: I also heard these rumours. I do not have any political ambitions. I have quite enough work to do here in the United Nations trying to do the best I can.
UN HQ New York June 2005