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Global Shocks, Crises and Mass Migrations

Spring / Summer 2010 Tête À Tête

Global Shocks, Crises and Mass Migrations

GB talks international disasters, relief and all things humanitarian with the UN’s former emergencies chief

GB: How do you see international emergency management unfolding over the next decade?

JE: With all of its faults and flaws – all evident in Haiti last January – humanitarian relief is one of the most effective tools at the disposal of the international community for improving well-being. It is central to modern international relations and international cooperation. And the modern humanitarian relief regime has been systematically developed now over 30 years through various reforms. This is precisely why humanitarian organizations today can be relief coordinators and leaders within 24 hours of an emergency: they can activate emergency funds, preparedness, arrangements, stand-by personnel and so on.

At the same time, we have also seen international expectations in respect of humanitarian relief grow exponentially. You have the public in countries like my own (Norway), where we even have problems getting the trains to run at peak times in winter, asking: why are two million people not fed in Haiti – a country in utter chaos, and one that has never functioned well – only seven days after the earthquake? So I think that what will happen is that humanitarian work will be very effectively expanded, but that it will still be far below international expectations. The danger, therefore, is the following: we are perfecting the band-aid, but we are at once ignoring the root causes of problems. In Haiti, for instance, there is no development, and no disaster prevention or preparedness; and in Darfur and in the Congo, the actual peace-making and peace-building tools of the international community are far too weak.

GB: Has there been an evolution in the quality or character of international emergency and humanitarian relief?

JE: When I started as a humanitarian worker for the Red Cross 25 years ago, there was absolutely no political predictability in respect of the weather and weather-related emergencies; that is, nature as a disaster would not get any attention or any assistance at all. The humanitarian reform effort that I initiated after the dismal earlier response to the Darfur tragedy in 2003 was really an effort to get predictable international funding, predictable response capacity, and predictable humanitarian leadership deployed into the field – as well as activity at headquarters. It is safe to say that there has been real progress in these areas. Forgotten places like northern Uganda, the Congo and Somalia at least now get a modicum of political attention. However, this attention is still disproportionately tilted toward places that speak English – places that have European and North American outlooks – because of their strategic or economic or emotional importance. These places win in the lottery for international compassion; the rest lose.

GB: What are some of these neglected places?

JE: There is still in-built discrimination in international relations. Africa, of course, continues to not get adequate attention – non-English-speaking Africa even more so than English-speaking Africa.

GB: There is greater neglect of non-English-speaking Africa?

JE: There is – in the sense that if one’s country was colonized by the Brits, then that country’s people evidently speak English, and so the Americans, the Canadians, the Brits and the Nordics are all more likely to be interested. That is one of the reasons for which, for example, the biggest loss of life on our watch at the UN – the Central African region, the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda – got so little support and attention, in relative terms.

But there are also other places. I am always puzzled, when I speak to North Americans, as to why they are so very interested in Darfur – which is close to the Gulf countries and to the Europeans, and so very far from North America – but give so little attention to Colombia, which represents the biggest war, the biggest humanitarian tragedy, the biggest refugee problem, the biggest drug problem, the biggest humanitarian problem, in the Western hemisphere.

My answer is that many people like stories – black and white stories. And Colombia seems to be a more complex story than Darfur, and indeed than Congo; both are just too complex. This does not mean that there is too much attention paid to Darfur from North America; indeed, there is exactly the right amount of attention and compassion in North America for Darfur; there is too little in the Gulf countries; too little in Europe; and, yes, too little of the same in North America for Colombia.

GB: So there is no coherent narrative?

JE: No, and that is also, of course, why individual compassion is very unpredictable. One out of 10 people in need, or, more likely, one out of 25, gets our attention. I often have these arguments with Americans who say, “No, no, international giving should not come from my tax payment; it should go through my private compassion – through my private charity.” The problem here, again, is that such private giving or compassion is unpredictable and irregular. In the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004-2005, we gave every single victim everything he or she needed for the next five to 10 years in the course of a month. And yet we do not give a penny to Somalia and the Congo, which have had a tsunami death toll again and again over the last 20 years.

GB: Will the very nature of these international emergencies or humanitarian emergencies or disasters change?

JE: There is one mega-trend here. We are, in relative terms, getting less conflict, and yet we are getting more natural disasters. Already, five times more people, on average, were affected every year over this past decade by natural disasters than by war and conflict.

So the trend is very clear: it is going more and more in that direction because the world has become a little more peaceful in the last 15 years. The last three years, of course, were not good, as we have seen new conflict – particularly in the wake of 9/11, with the ‘war on terror,’ and indeed with globalized terrorism. Still, the general trend line is that there has been less conflict this last decade than in the 1990s, and less today than 10 or 15 years ago.

We have had a quadrupling of the number of natural disasters because many more people are living more exposed to more extreme weather. This means that we have two or three times more people affected by earthquakes, even though Mother Earth is shaking just like she has for the last few million years. Haiti, clearly, is a graphic case in point. Weather-related natural disasters are up three, four, five, six times over the last 40 years because there is also more extreme weather affecting more people who are more vulnerable. Whether this has to do with climate variability or, as I believe, with climate change, is ultimately not so important. The important thing is that the climate has gotten worse.

GB: The climate has gotten worse, but there have been human movements into areas of greater vulnerability?

JE: Yes. I am 52 years old. When I was born, there were around three billion people in the world. Today, there are seven billion people. When I die, there are likely to be some 12 billion people. So, in my lifetime, world population is quadrupling, which means, again, that a city like Port-au-Prince in Haiti, which was built for 100,000 people, will have two million people. And this, in turns, means that the city becomes a death trap for hundreds of thousands.

GB: What role do government forms and structures at the level of the state play in mitigating or enabling humanitarian disasters?

JE: It is a mixed bag. The political right underestimates the importance of functioning government. Again, look at Haiti: with no government, there is utter chaos and total reliance on international assistance. You look at Chile, which was hit by a much stronger earthquake – and yet there were far fewer people killed; and relief there has also been much more effective because Chile has a functioning government. Of course, the left will also often underestimate the import of government, and perhaps undervalue the role of private groups in development, and indeed the very resilience of people themselves.

I should stress that it is more important that there be effective government than that there be liberal democracy. As we know, Cuba is very bad on human rights, but it is also among the five best in the developing world in dealing with natural disasters.

GB: What would be the definition of effective government?

JE: Effective government is responsive to public needs – to national needs. It is interesting that in the Caribbean, which is so disaster-prone, there are very different systems of government and emergency management. For all intents and purposes, the Cubans, Jamaicans and Dominicans are all now much better prepared for hazards than is Haiti, which remains totally defenceless.

GB: Do we overestimate or underestimate the role of non-governmental organizations – internationally, domestically – in emergency relief and in humanitarian disasters?

JE: As I said, there are two mistakes at play here: one is to underestimate them, and the other one is to overestimate them. The importance of NGOs has been on the rise consistently over the last 30 years. The NGOs deliver much more in the way of humanitarian services, relief and help directly to people than do both the UN and the international governmental agencies. However, these NGOs are totally reliant on the coordination, the funding, the diplomacy, and the heavy-lifting of the UN and state governments. So, in a way, a very effective division of labour has evolved – where the NGOs have proven themselves as the grassroots operators of the international community, while governments and the UN are the coordinators, the funders and the ones who negotiate access, provide funding and develop frameworks. The strength and weakness of NGOs is that they are many. When 200 groups descend on Haiti, it is very clear that they are very potently spreading all over the island at the same time as they are tripping on each other’s legs. They really need guidance; they need coordination and shepherding. And they need long-term funding – not just, as I said earlier, what they can get in the short-term from private donations.

GB: Do you see international wealth or population imbalances playing any role in humanitarian disasters and in corresponding pressures on developed societies for certain policy responses or accommodation over the next five to 10 years?

JE: Yes, absolutely. It is interesting that everybody speaks about the children in the developing world, and about the elderly in the developed world; in my country, for instance, we always speak about the elderly, and then in Africa, they only speak about children.

One group that we are underestimating is the youth of the world. There are currently about 1.7 billion people between the ages of 12 and 34 years. This is a huge and growing group – in North Africa and Central America and the Asian Subcontinent alike – and these people are not being given work. They are not given hope; they are not given a future. And these people, of course, know how well we live in the North and in the West; and they are angry. This is a major departure from the past: their parents were equally poor, and also did not have much opportunity for very good work, but they did not know how well we in the rest of the world lived. Now they know.

To me, therefore, it comes as a big surprise that people in the North and West are shocked that there should be increasing mass movements of people. Would we also not wander were we in their shoes? (Of course, there is no Canada and no America anymore left to populate, as there was when the Norwegians and the Irish were poor.) When CNN’s Lou Dobbs goes on his rampage, saying, “We have to defend middle-class America from these hordes of people coming from outside,” I want to ask him: Are you a native American, Mr. Dobbs? Your grandparents did exactly what these people are doing. They wandered to get a better chance in another place.

The only way to solve the demographic bomb of continued overpopulation in many parts of the world – and of mass migrations of people – is through development, public investment, private investment, fair trade, free trade and development aid. Investment and trade are more important than aid, but aid is still needed. Haiti has nothing to sell us; at the moment, they need aid to recover.

GB: It sounds like there will be another major migration, then. There will probably be huge pressures on the developed world in the next little while. Do you agree?

JE: The huge pressure will be coming from hundreds of millions of young, angry people who are fed up with poverty and bad governance where they live, and who want to get to Europe, to North America, to South Korea and other places of prosperity.

GB: Quickly turning to the Middle East, as you look back on the old Oslo peace process – in which you were one of the key players – given the situation on the ground today, and the situation prospectively, was Oslo as close as one could get to ‘success’? Should it be ventured again, or is the Arab-Israeli conflict fundamentally insoluble?

JE: I wrote a memoir of my work as UN envoy, and also as a Norwegian peace facilitator, called A Billion Lives. I had a chapter in there called “The Birth, Life and Death of the Oslo Accord.” My feeling was that the strength of the Oslo agreement was that the parties themselves sat down, under our (Norwegian) facilitation, and came to an agreement that was what they could agree on at that time. It was what was possible at the time. The one mistake that we made was that we underestimated the enemies of peace on both sides – Israeli and Palestinian alike.

It is only a question of time before the Israelis and the Palestinians make the same kind of historic agreement as did the Germans and the French, and indeed the Norwegians and the Swedes – all of whom fought each other for hundreds of years. There will certainly be compromises – painful compromises, on both sides – that will have to be made, and many of the elements of these compromises will come from the Oslo process, as well as from the Clinton-year negotiations.

GB: What is the source of Norwegian excellence – real or perceived – in these areas of international relations (peace-brokering, development assistance, etc.)?

JE: Again, there are two mistakes that we can make: the first is to underestimate the potential of a small, coherent, affluent nation; and the second is to overestimate this same potential. What we in Norway did in my time is that we proved that, in terms of facilitating, willing and enabling conflicting parties to talk and to meet and to work together, we were quite effective.

One of my proudest moments was overseeing the ceasefire agreement that essentially ended the war between the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) and the Guatemalan government and army, after 30 years of civil war, in the town hall of Oslo in 1996. Why could we do that? Because we had systematically used the NGOs, networks and church groups, among other groups, in a creative manner, and worked persistently on this case for seven long years. This eventuated in success.

In Norway, there is a fundamental consensus in favour of using one percent of GDP for international assistance – which happens to be, in a growing economy, a considerable sum. Much of this assistance money is not tied – unlike the assistance money of the great powers, which comes with specific obligations, strategic and other. So there is freedom and flexibility in its use.

I should stress also that Oslo has proven that we cannot force any party or group to do anything that they do not wish to do. It took great powers to really force Milosevic to give up Kosovo. Those who failed in Rwanda were not so much, in my view, the UN or the Secretary-General, but rather the great powers. In the end, the NGOs and the small countries can do nothing against ruthless bands with a lot of arms. You need the combination of the small and the big working together.


Jan Egeland is the director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He was the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator between 2003 and 2006.

(Photograph: OCHR)

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