The UN and the Race Against Death

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…

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