Jan Egeland’s A Billion Lives is about human disasters, current efforts to deal with them, and what could work better in the future. The billion lives of the title are those “of fellow human beings without drinking water, daily food, or even a dollar a day to survive on” and who, incidentally, are the most vulnerable of the victims of both natural and man-made disasters. Egeland’s book is, in my experience, unique in its approach to these problems, being at the same time immensely well informed, practical, and optimistic.


Organized humanitarianism is a relatively new concept; the word itself still does not exist in some languages. The idea that nations in general have a responsibility for alleviating a particular people’s suffering anywhere in the world is also relatively new. No group of countries has done more than the Scandinavians to support international humanitarian action. Starting with the Norwegian explorer and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen—who devised passports for stateless persons—before, during, and after World War I, a succession of compassionate Norse-men and women have gone out into the world to do battle with both human misfortune and man’s inhumanity to man.

Jan Egeland is a contemporary standard-bearer of this dedicated group. His career so far, culminating in three years as head of the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, is both an adventure story and a series of reflections on how responses to human disaster can be improved. Egeland writes in vigorous prose, and his book is admirably short and to the point.

Egeland came early to his humanitarian vocation. As a boy he was particularly fascinated by Latin America. On the evening news in his comfortable home in Stavanger, Norway, he heard a Catholic priest, Rafael Garcìa Herreros, invite young Norwegians “with a social conscience to come and help me here in Colombia.” Egeland immediately volunteered, and his parents, who may not have realized quite how dangerous Colombia could be, agreed that he should go for a year after graduating from high school in 1976.

Garcìa Herreros and his organization, El Minuto de Dios, were the foremost agents of humanitarian work in the internal strife of Colombia. The priest sent Egeland to live with the Motilone Indians, a jungle tribe on the border with Venezuela, in order “to learn how to tackle tough challenges.” This primitive environment from “a different world and age” was at that time threatened by prospecting oil companies, guerrilla warfare, the drug trade, and epidemic disease.

Egeland returned many times to Colombia, as Norwegian state secretary and later as representative of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, to pursue the ever-elusive goal of a peace agreement between the government and the rebels of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). He entered rebel-held areas a number of times to meet the insurgent leaders. The necessary contacts became increasingly dangerous as paramilitary groups often involved with the drug traffic proliferated, targeting the insurgents, the local population, and anyone who appeared to be dealing with them. For their part, the rebels kidnapped hostages to be used for bargaining and were capable of great brutality. There is still no peace agreement.1

Egeland’s subsequent career in the Norwegian Foreign Service and as secretary-general of the Norwegian Red Cross gave him an invaluable combination of political and humanitarian experience. He was also a leading member of the team that negotiated, in secrecy in 1993, the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.

Arriving in the United States to assume his UN post on August 19, 2003, Egeland learned, from a TV screen at Newark airport, that a powerful truck bomb had just destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Another TV monitor near the passport control informed him that the chief of mission, his longtime friend Sergio Vieira de Mello, with whom he had worked in the Balkans, Central Africa, and Cambodia, was among the twenty-two dead. This tragedy was also a major turning point for international operations in regions of conflict.

UN civilian staff, peacekeeping soldiers, and nongovernmental humanitarian workers in the field had always regarded themselves as impartial and benevolent. Although they might sometimes be caught in the crossfire, they believed that they would not be deliberately attacked as enemies, and refused to live inside a heavily guarded security cocoon. The bombing of the UN’s Baghdad headquarters changed all that. The UN too is now a terrorist target. As Egeland writes:

The age of innocence has gone. I had expected to spend all my energies in the UN on the security and survival of disaster and conflict victims, not on the security and survival of our own UN staff.

In his first weeks at the UN, Egeland found himself alone in opposing the general opinion of his new colleagues that all UN international staff should be withdrawn from Iraq.2 That the Coalition Provisional Authority had been unwilling to give de Mello serious political responsibilities contributed to this view. Egeland felt strongly that withdrawal by the UN would show terrorists and insurgent groups how easily they could get rid of the UN, leaving the stricken population without the diplomatic and humanitarian assistance the UN could provide. He persuaded Secretary-General Kofi Annan to let him go to Baghdad in October 2003 to assess the risk and usefulness of the UN presence.


Egeland had been to Iraq twice before as head of the Norwegian Red Cross—in December 2002 and May 2003—and had witnessed, after the successful US military campaign, the vacuum of authority and order and of serious planning that was to undermine hopes for building a new Iraq. The day after his return to New York following his October trip, a truck bomb exploded at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baghdad. It was early in the morning, and only two people were killed, but it led Annan to order UN officials to withdraw. The local Iraqi staff continued humanitarian operations until a new system of security was developed and the international staff returned.

Egeland’s department at the UN was actively involved in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in Iran after the Bam earthquake in late 2003, in Eastern Congo and Burundi, in Angola, southern Sudan, Darfur, and northern Uganda, and in Lebanon, East Timor, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Larger than any of the other emergencies, however, was the destruction in Southeast Asia caused on December 26, 2004, by a tsunami, a giant wave triggered by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded (magnitude 9). Traveling at over three hundred miles per hour, the storm instantly devastated the heavily populated coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. The greatest natural catastrophe of modern times, it was on a scale and of a destructive force for which no country or relief organization could possibly be prepared. The final figure for dead and missing was 227,000.

Egeland immediately deployed his emergency staff to identify the most urgent tasks. He had to raise enormous amounts of money and supplies, and keep an eye on small mishaps that derail vast operations, like the collision of a relief plane with a cow that blocked the only working airstrip in Aceh, Western Sumatra. He had to coordinate UN agencies and the throng of nongovernmental organizations that flock to the scene of disasters.3 He was also responsible for updating governments and the mass media daily about the situation in order to ensure continuing support for the operations.

Offers of help poured in from all sides. The international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, for instance, offered its services pro bono, providing something previously unavailable to UN operations, the most effective possible “enhanced Internet-based financial tracking system.” Egeland comments,

It took a lot of convincing to get all UN agencies on board in this new joint venture, but soon there is a growing enthusiasm for using the external advisers with their new software and procedures that can track and control the flows of money in real time.

The world response to the tsunami, both public and private, was unprecedented:

The global total of $13.5 billion represented an astonishing $7,100 for every affected person, as opposed to only three dollars per head actually spent on someone affected by floods in Bangladesh in 2004. We saw nature at its worst and humanity at our best during and after the tsunami.

In February 2005, Kofi Annan marked the transition from immediate relief to longer-term recovery and reconstruction by appointing Bill Clinton as special envoy for tsunami recovery, and Egeland could return to his regular work. An evaluation of the tsunami operation by independent experts concluded that

generous relief provided affected populations with the security they needed to begin planning what to do next. Large amounts of funding allowed rapid initial recovery activities…. In all countries, children were back in school quickly and health facilities and service were partly restored and, in some cases, much improved….

In the tsunami devastation zone there were at least two highly sensitive political situations involving the independence movements in Aceh, Sumatra, and in northern Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, the governments of Indonesia and Sri Lanka welcomed extensive international relief efforts in these areas.

In horrifying contrast, with a probable death toll of more than 100,000 and over two million survivors in desperate need of food, water, medicine, and shelter, the Burmese junta, at the beginning of May, resisted international relief for ten days before reluctantly admitting a small percentage of what was both needed and available. Much of the stricken area is only accessible by sea, but the junta has barred the naval vessels of the United States and other navies from using their helicopters and small vessels to bring relief.


The Burmese junta, having cut off its people from the outside world for forty-six years, has recently, in its obsession with self-preservation, cut off millions of them from their best hope of survival and recovery. No government or international institution is at present willing to challenge openly or by action this homicidal exercise in national sovereignty.

In another striking contrast, China, facing an enormous disaster from the earthquake in Sichuan province, has mounted a huge relief effort, opened the afflicted region to the international press, and received urgent assistance from its neighbors, including Japan and Taiwan.

Darfur remains one of the cruelest and most brutal humanitarian and political problems now confronting UN members. The plight of the people of Darfur is a test of the principle by which foreign governments would recognize their “responsibility to protect” gravely endangered people if their own governments are incapable or unwilling to do so, a commitment adopted with considerable fanfare by world leaders at the UN in 2005. So far, as the recent actions of both the Burmese junta and the Sudanese government have shown, the new principle has proved no match for the older one of national sovereignty. The forces of the Sudanese regime and the Janjaweed militias it supports have been responsible for the death of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of well over two million.

In his visits to Darfur beginning in 2004, Egeland was bitterly aware that the population’s vulnerability to attack by the Janjaweed, even in refugee camps, greatly limited the ability of a very large relief operation to help them. His last visit, in 2006, was by far the most depressing:

On each previous trip there had been some progress, some hope to hold on to in the middle of this vast desert of suffering and systematic abuse of defenseless civilians. This time both the people and the aid workers are disillusioned and desperately anxious.

Egeland had protested the horror of the situation to the Sudanese leaders in Khartoum, and on his last visit neither the President nor Vice-President would see him. On previous visits, Khartoum had sporadically blocked his travels, and also refused to let American journalists travel with him. This was done regardless, or perhaps because, of the fact that the US is by far the largest donor to the relief operations in Darfur.

Leaving Darfur in 2006 Egeland was, for once, “utterly disillusioned”:

If the trend I have witnessed continues and the world’s largest humanitarian operation falters, if the lifeline for millions of civilians collapses, the situation in Darfur will spiral out of control and we may have a new Rwanda and many new Srebrenicas.

As he finished his last briefing to the Security Council on Darfur, he looked steadily at the Sudanese representative. “The Sudanese diplomat listened impassively.”


Egeland bears no resemblance to the discreet and diffident international civil servant whom governments like and can easily disregard. He believes that results can best be achieved by relentless honesty and plain speaking, if possible at the highest level. He also believes in outspoken and frequent contacts with the press and television, where language that sometimes upsets governments may also get headlines and useful publicity. At the outset of the tsunami operation, for instance, CNN delivered a report headlined “US, rich countries stingy, says UN official.” Egeland found the CNN report

worrisome in linking my well-known stand on the overall “stinginess” of rich countries4 with the modest initial pledge by the United States government of $4 million (later in the evening increased to $15 million) to the tsunami-stricken countries.

He was right to be worried. From President Bush on down, furious and often abusive messages poured into his office, until a lead editorial in The New York Times insisted that Egeland was right. In fact, his reference to stinginess and the reaction to it attracted the much-needed attention of the press and television to the huge financial needs of the tsunami relief operation.

During the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, northern Israel, and Gaza, Egeland went to Beirut to start relief operations, and in particular to arrange humanitarian corridors to the parts of Lebanon cut off by Israel’s bombing of roads and bridges throughout the country. During a three-hour halt in air attacks he visited the heavily damaged part of southern Beirut where the headquarters of Hezbollah was located. As he was leaving the area, Egeland replied to a BBC correspondent’s question about the Israeli bombing, saying:

This seems a disproportionate response to me. Of course I don’t know if there were any military targets here, but a disproportionate response by Israel is a violation of international humanitarian law.

After the BBC report was widely quoted in the world press, and other critics adopted the word “disproportionate,” the Israeli government canceled Egeland’s meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.

At a press conference in Cyprus the following day, Egeland turned to the destructive practices of Hezbollah:

Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that their fighters must stop [their] cowardly blending into the civilian population among women and children. I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters. I don’t think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men.

Some calamities, as Egeland points out, get far less international attention than others. On arriving at the UN in August 2003, he asked a group of experienced field officers to identify “the most forgotten and neglected humanitarian crisis in the world.” Most chose the twenty-year reign of terror by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, under the command of its ruthless leader Joseph Kony. Egeland writes:

Nowhere else are so many people terrorized, brutalized, and displaced with so little attention, so little assistance, and so little protection. Nobody seems to care that a whole generation of children is perishing….

Egeland decided to go to northern Uganda as his first UN field mission, and he was horrified by what he saw—“hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children [living] in appalling conditions in overcrowded and filthy camps,” with little international aid and virtually no protection from their own government. Egeland strongly rebuked the representatives of UN agencies working in Uganda, who had failed even to take notice of this outrageous situation.

Three years later, while in Juba, in southern Sudan, Egeland decided to try to speak directly to Kony, whose headquarters was in the jungle just across the border from Uganda. Even Egeland describes this move as “controversial.” He took, he wrote at the time,

a huge risk on behalf of the UN in grabbing a rare opportunity to speak directly to the elusive Kony. I am hoping that it may help prolong the most promising cease-fire in the course of twenty years of strife and untold suffering. We should be willing to take big risks for that.5

Egeland’s party—his own advisers and escort, and the vice-president of the new South Sudan government with twenty armed guards—went by helicopter and jungle track to find Kony.6 The helicopters had to return to Juba before dark, so the group had little time. On arrival at the LRA’s jungle headquarters Kony’s deputy told them that he would be representing Kony. Egeland refused to start the talks without Kony and demanded that he appear at once as previously agreed. Kony was apparently in hiding an hour’s walk away, but he eventually appeared thirty minutes before Egeland’s party had to leave.7 Egeland appealed for the continuation of the cease-fire and the handing over of wounded women and children. Kony agreed to future contacts. Egeland believed that this first meeting was a step toward building up trust, an essential prerequisite to negotiations.

Egeland’s “controversial” meeting with Kony infuriated President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Two days later he had Egeland driven at high speed straight from the Kampala airfield to receive a presidential rebuke. Museveni maintained that Kony’s LRA had to be dealt with by military action and that the cease-fire and the current absence of terrorist activity, which Egeland ascribed to the peace process, “were only due to the efforts of [the Ugandan] army!” Kony continues to be elusive. On April 12, 2008, a New York Times headline read, “Warlord’s Absence Derails Another Peace Effort in Uganda.”

Egeland sometimes has doubts about whether the risks he has taken were worth it. Of an attempt in 2001 to talk directly to the FARC while serving as the UN special envoy to Colombia, he writes:

At noon we reached the tiny hamlet along the track where the FARC had promised to collect us. As we stood waiting, I realized that this time we had been too reckless. We had gone into an active conflict zone on our own, on a mission to save a peace channel that many military and paramilitary groups did not want to succeed. I thought of my wife and our two daughters and regretted the whole thing.

He must have had similar feelings on the jungle track to the Lord’s Resistance Army headquarters, when a Captain Sunday of the LRA ordered Egeland’s Romanian guards to dump their weapons before they went any further. “No white faces can carry guns from here. We don’t trust them—we only trust black faces.”

Egeland’s determination to speak the truth, however unwelcome, requires considerable moral courage, and doesn’t always work. When he met with him in Harare in 2005, Egeland told President Mugabe of Zimbabwe of the urgent need for emergency shelter for the thousands of Zimbabwean families with children, victims of the president’s wholesale evictions and bulldozing of neighborhoods, who had no shelter, no food, and no income. The UN, Egeland said, was willing to provide tents as a short-term solution. “Keep your tents,” Mugabe said, “we do not need them. Tents are for Arabs!” “It is one of those situations,” Egeland writes, “when you do not know whether to cry, laugh, or shout.”


Egeland is convinced that the condition of most people in the world is getting better, and that with the help of international organizations the improvement can be steadily extended. Millions have received relief and even improved security as wars ended. He writes that we now have the technology and the institutions to end “the massive suffering that is taking place on our watch,” although he adds that “we are only on the first leg of a long marathon toward coherent and predictable multilateral action for all vulnerable communities.”

What is lacking is the political will both to provide the necessary funding and resources and to take timely action to prevent predictable disasters. The failure of governments and international institutions like the Security Council to act promptly upon warnings of disaster—in Bosnia, in the Great Lakes region of Africa, in Darfur— have resulted in situations that eventually demanded large-scale humanitarian relief operations. In Darfur, Egeland writes in exasperation, “We humanitarian workers were, as in Bosnia in the 1990s, asked to feed and shelter millions while armed men around the 140 camps planned their next massacres with impunity. It is as if Srebrenica and Rwanda are ancient history.” Here again Egeland seems to underestimate the continuing power of national sovereignty and of national self-interest to inhibit, or even to paralyze, political bodies like the Security Council—as well as to thwart UN aid missions, as we are now seeing in Burma.

At present, seven times more people are devastated by natural disasters than by war. Climate change may well mean that “once-in-a-generation” disasters will occur quite frequently. Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed local and national responses, showed how even the strongest industrialized nations can be vulnerable.8 The incidence of extreme droughts, hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, and floods is increasing, and these are only the most observable effects of a changing climate. The World Health Organization has estimated that the world annually suffers 150,000 climate-change-related deaths, and, according to Egeland, this number will double by 2020.

Egeland’s optimism about the future is largely based on the fact that there now exists “the biggest and best network ever of like-minded intergovernmental, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations as channels of future investments in peace and development.” The UN’s recent and seldom-mentioned advances in coping with disasters give some substance to his optimism. The UN, for instance, was able to give effective relief following the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. And Egeland describes the “momentous” improvement the UN had been able to make in the “worst war zone of our generation,” the Democratic Republic of the Congo— where, notwithstanding recent charges of corruption, it has disarmed militias, helped millions of Congolese return to their homes, and organized elections.

On the financial side the outlook is less promising, although the sums required are small by comparison with defense budgets or the cost of military operations. Only a few of the richer countries—Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway—have met the agreed United Nations goal of giving at least 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product for combating poverty, disease, and hunger worldwide. At Egeland’s suggestion, Kofi Annan in 2005 proposed a new Central Emergency Response Fund of $500 million in voluntary contributions—two thirds for quickly mounting emergency operations and one third for dealing with continuing situations that are underfunded and neglected. By August 2007, the fund had committed over $450 million to 522 projects in fifty countries.

Perhaps most important, throughout the world, many different groups are organizing themselves to take on the burden of responding to disaster. In the final words of Egeland’s book,

All over Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, I could see how religious groups, women’s groups, peasant groups, student groups, and trade unions stand up for human rights, for local development, and for peace and reconciliation. They represent great hope…as we embark as the generation that has in its hands the power to end massive misery and prevent conflict and disasters.

Such words may seem simplistic when we consider the monstrous problems the human race now faces, or the obstacles posed by the concept of national sovereignty as it is currently being used in Darfur and in Myanmar. But Egeland has seen more disasters and human destructiveness than most people, and has done a great deal to relieve both. He has emerged with an optimistic view about what can be done in the future. The world’s great problems, including, to name a few, nuclear proliferation, global warming, energy and food shortages, terrorism and political extremism, Palestinian rights and Israeli security, all have global repercussions but remain largely unresolved. Human misery and poverty also have wide repercussions; but, as Egeland suggests, it is possible, at least to a considerable degree, to resolve them. Tackling them much more energetically would be a good start in the right direction.

—May 28, 2008

This Issue

June 26, 2008