THE FIRST-HAND TRUTH ABOUT HUMANITARIAN AID Interview with Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

Christian Jepsen-Norwegian Refugee Council-16 Christian Jepsen-Norwegian Refugee Council-10Jan Egeland was the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from June 2003 to December 2006 and, due to his outspokenness and general manner, he was a very popular man with journalists, in particular in Geneva. It was perhaps one of the most exciting or, should one rather say, dramatic periods with, for instance, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and other disasters one after the other. Jan was there talking to the press, denouncing and drawing attention to many a forgotten crisis. The Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) was one of his many initiatives ‒‒ a useful source for many underfunded humanitarian crises. After leaving the United Nations, he was appointed head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch and the Director of Human Rights Watch Europe, before becoming the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council in August 2013. We had the chance to meet him recently when he returned from South Sudan where the NRC is heavily involved on the ground.
Q: Do you miss your work in the United Nations?
There are many things I miss about my work in the United Nations. For instance, I miss the hard-working colleagues; I miss the fora. I was on the BBC and CNN almost every week for three years. We were able to put many major humanitarian questions and issues on the agenda, so in this way it was great. However, I do not miss all the procedures, all the rules that make the work of the UN so onerous and bureaucratic. Therefore, it is very nice to be working for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is a major Scandinavian NGO, where we can deliver very fast, very powerful and flexible solutions to the grassroots level in the field.
Q: Could you tell us about the NRC and what you are doing?
NRC is one of the largest NGOs working with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). We are present in twenty-five different countries and we have 4,000 employees around the world. We have a particularly large presence on the Horn of Africa, in Somalia where we run a large operation, but also in all the different countries of the region. In Syria, we also have an important operation with over 1,000 employees ‒‒ a huge and important presence.
In addition, we are running a large operation in Afghanistan and in two neighbouring countries ‒‒ Pakistan and Iran ‒‒ for Afghan refugees. It is typical of the NRC that we are powerful on the ground, in the field and we deliver good operational services. We are working in difficult countries such as, for example, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are also in Syria and in its neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. I would also mention that we possess the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency expert roster. We have the capacity to deploy a range of experts anywhere in the world in a very short time. There were 600 of them last year and they were deployed to all the UN organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), but also to the African Union and other regional organizations.
Q: How was this roster created?
It was set up in the 1990s when we had the first bilateral agreements with UNHCR and other humanitarian UN organizations to supply expert personnel when major disasters threatened and in areas where the UN system did not have enough expertise.
Q: You have just come back from South Sudan. Do people know what is going on down there?
The danger right now is that some acute conflicts, such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic, have become overshadowed by the Syrian crisis, which is the largest humanitarian disaster in modern times. That we must acknowledge. However, Syria is receiving all of the media attention, as is now the crisis in Ukraine. So, out of sight of these two conflicts other extreme and terrible things are happening which receive very little attention. So we struggle to find funds to increase the emergency operations that we must and should carry out in South Sudan.
Q: Would you say that there is a correlation between media and money?
This is often the case. It used to be called the CNN effect, and it still exists. I must admit that when I came to South Sudan in late February this year, the situation on the ground was worse than I had imagined. I thought that the situation had improved, since it had, after all, been in the media’s purview when the civil war broke out in December. When you reach the field and see with your own eyes that it’s even worse now than it was then, it is really sad. This is the reason why it is so important to pay a visit to the field when you are leading an organization. In that way you obtain the first-hand truth, without passing through other people and censorship.
Q: Norway’s involvement in South Sudan is the very well-known. Are other countries involved in this tragedy?
It is unfortunate that there are all too few donors. It is remarkable that Norway and Sweden, two small countries close to the North Pole with a limited number of inhabitants, are both among the five, six or seven greatest donors in the world in the humanitarian field. It’s really absurd. Where are the major economy countries? Those in Asia, in the Middle East, in many other parts of the world? I believe that what we give from Norway is the minimum that we should. After all, we give 1% of GNP for development aid and humanitarian assistance and we retain 99% ourselves. It’s amazing that many great economies donate 0.02% or less of their wealth to relieve the world’s distress and misery. This means that they retain 99.9 or 99.8% for private and public consumption at home.
Q: In a recent article you wrote that people are not as engaged in the Syrian crisis as they were for the former Yugoslavia, where people demonstrated in the streets to end the war. Do you think that people have become tired of hearing about disasters and that they have simply had enough?
I wrote an article in The Guardian recently entitled “Where is the outrage?” I believe that there are two main reasons. There is a certain fatigue in some countries and among the donor community, but it is also a fact that we, as aid workers, are not concentrating enough to get the message out about how much is at stake. Another reason is that the situation may appear to be hopeless. Many people give up and do not want to hear any more about it. I was pretty upset when I heard that there exists a “Syria filter application” on the Internet. In other words, if you download this application you do not get any news about what is happening in Syria on your computer. If we have an application that makes it impossible to obtain news about the world’s most demanding, difficult and terrible crisis, we have problems. We have to improve our ability to get the message out and demonstrate that there is hope. Syria’s children want to go to school; they want a future; they want to build their country and become good citizens.
Q: There are more and more people who say that they are tired of the humanitarian organizations always begging for money. They also have the impression that nothing is happening on the ground, that the situation doesn’t change, and that the humanitarian organizations have been lying to them, taking advantage of their generosity. What do you think?
I think it is really worrying that people use this as an excuse not to give money because they are afraid that the money does not reach its destination. It is indeed wrong. We go through so much internal audit, quality controls, economic controls, evaluations, impact controls, monitoring, etc. All the operations of the international humanitarian organizations are subject to these controls, and this applies also to operations in the field. You could also say, if you are a taxpayer in one of the Western countries, why are there so few tangible results for the NATO operations in Afghanistan or Iraq? Multiple billions of tax payer’s money have been spent on these operations, and what have Americans and Europeans obtained in return? They are the most expensive campaigns that we have had in one generation. On our side we can give figures about how the money was spent. There is no better investment than private and public humanitarian assistance.
Q: If we take Haiti, for example, we see that people were not any better off after the earthquake despite all the millions they received in humanitarian aid. There is so little concrete evidence and a lot of people felt really cheated.
Haiti is a good example where there was little coordinated linkage between emergency assistance and development. Why Haiti has not evolved is because the development assistance did not happen. Nevertheless, life-saving relief, which we stand for, worked very well.
Generally speaking, mortality rates have decreased dramatically in wars and disasters. The average life expectancy for people has gone up. The number of illiterates has been reduced and the general health situation is better. So, in general, the living conditions have improved and people have a far better life today than they had five or ten years ago.
Q: There have never been more refugees and internally displaced persons than there are today. Do you think that you should be given more “power” in order to assist these people better?
It is correct that the number of refugees now is higher than it has been in the recent past and that we are back to a situation similar to that of the 1990s. In fact, the figures concerning IDPs are actually a bit higher than they were in the 1990s in absolute figures. The number of refugees has remained relatively stable. It has not reached an all-time high such as it was during and after the Second World War. It has increased lately because of international conflicts, many of which are very bitter and costly in human suffering.
Q: There exists an international status for refugees covered by humanitarian law, but to our knowledge nothing exists for the IDPs, making it very difficult to get anything done for them. Is this still the case?
There exists thankfully a document entitled “Guiding principles on internal displacement” (, which has gained a tremendous amount of international support. You are right, there is no “convention” for IDPs as such. But there is great support for these guidelines and they say basically the same thing as the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, namely that we should protect them too. The main problem is that it is often difficult and dangerous to reach IDPs in a civil war zone. For instance, there is comparatively more assistance to Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries than inside Syria itself. It is more dangerous and more difficult to provide assistance inside Syria compared to those people who are located in neighbouring countries.
Q: You are working with refugees. How would you characterize your collaboration with UNHCR?
We have excellent cooperation with UNHCR. We have just signed a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with António Guterres, the UNHCR High Commissioner. This has been sent to all our offices and field operations. In this MoU it is stated that we mutually agree to collaborate anywhere in the world. In many countries we have a great relationship and joint operations with UNHCR, and often provide them with experts.
We have some core competencies and these are: shelter, emergency education, water and sanitation, and something called “ICLA” –‒ information, counselling and legal assistance –‒ in other words, free legal advice. Housing, land and property are the major areas where there are legal problems. The IDPs or the refugees lack papers of property ownership, and we often assist them to return back to their homes or to find a place to live or to receive compensation.
I would like to stress that we also have close and excellent collaboration with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and IOM, in addition to UNHCR. It is a very good and fruitful collaboration in the best interests of the refugees and IDPs.