Jan Egeland speaks in a calm manner than befits his four decades of humanitarian work, but he becomes increasingly animated when discussing the record number of people currently displaced because of humanitarian crises across the globe.
This year alone, the group that he heads, the Norwegian Refugee Council, helped those affected by the war in Ukraine, the Afghanistan earthquake in June and the ongoing devastating drought in Somalia.
In recognition of these efforts, the council this year has been awarded the world's largest annual humanitarian award for a nonprofit — worth $2.5 million.
The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which will be handed out Oct. 21, recognizes "extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering."
Egeland is a former Norwegian foreign minister who held positions at Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross and the United Nations before becoming secretary general of the council. Upon returning from a trip to Somalia in June, he spoke with NPR about overlooked crises, equal protection for all refugees and reasons to hope.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the Norwegian Refugee Council?
We are a frontline humanitarian organization assisting refugees and displaced people in conflict areas. We were established in 1946 just after the liberation of Norway from Nazi occupation. At the time, Norway was a poor country receiving Marshall Aid assistance from the United States, but our founders saw that the situation was even worse for most of the rest of Europe. Our early relief efforts focused on refugees in Austria, Germany, Poland and the Balkans — and it grew from there. Today we have 16,000 field workers in most of the biggest crises and wars of our time, from Ukraine to Colombia, from Congo to Myanmar.
What does it mean to win the Hilton Humanitarian Prize?
This award could not have come at more important time for us because we are challenged like never before. Our advocacy for targeted civilians has also made us become a target for authoritarian regimes and parties to armed conflicts who do not like the truth to be told to the world. With the recognition and backing of the Hilton Prize we can do that with more authority and greater resources. It's a considerable sum of money, but of equal importance is the recognition and prestige. I regard this as the Nobel Prize for humanitarian work.
What can you do with the money?
Last year we helped over 10 million refugees and displaced people; this year we need to reach even more. The enemies are bigger and worse, so we need to be quicker and smarter, responding to crises earlier, providing support for the longer term and helping people to become self-reliant as soon as possible. We can only accomplish that with local colleagues, and the money will help us with staff development. In Afghanistan we have 1,400 humanitarian workers and just 25 of them are international. In general, 99% of our staff are non-Norwegian. This funding will also help us concentrate on conflict prevention, building on our longstanding mediation between warring ethnic groups or between farmers and herdsmen competing for land and water resources.
Where are some of the overlooked crises in the world that you are monitoring?
We issue an annual report measuring the number of people in greatest need versus the corresponding international media coverage, money directed toward the crises and diplomatic efforts to halt hostilities. Last year the top 10 of the most neglected conflicts and displacement crises in the world were in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a colossal emergency where more than 25 million people are in need, yet it receives scant attention. The same is true for Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Chad and Somalia.
And now much media attention and global funding is going to Ukrainian refugees. The Russian invasion was launched in February. What has changed for Ukrainian refugees?
The NRC has been in Ukraine since the 2014 Donbas conflict, but now the situation is much worse, with trench warfare and the destruction of entire cities engulfing millions of civilians. Some areas have become more stable where we are able to help the internally displaced, and Ukrainians are now returning from abroad after initially fleeing. At the same time, others continue to be driven out from the south and the east of the country. I fear for the winter. Millions will be freezing soon so we are preparing a winterization program and strengthening logistic lines from the neighboring states.
Not all refugees have enjoyed the same treatment as Ukrainians.
It's a good thing that we want to help our neighbor who looks like us, has the same religion and can easily integrate in our societies but we should give protection according to need. In Europe people from the Middle East or Afghanistan are met with a cold shoulder and barbed wire whereas Ukrainians are welcomed. It's the same in the U.S., where women and children fleeing horrific violence in central America are not always well received. This is a battle of values, and we must stand squarely on the side of those who need protection.
How do you work effectively in countries where the government is one of the forces who have driven people from their homes?
We live and breathe by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. This means we teach our colleagues not to take sides and not to get close to a government which is a party to the conflict. But at the same time, we still need to have the respect, and the protection, of those parties. We always try to work on all sides – it pains me that we're not able to work in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
What is the right thing to do in Afghanistan?
It is now over a year since the West left Afghanistan, leaving behind 40 million mainly women and children, and they need our solidarity now more than ever. There must be engagement between the de facto authorities and the donor countries on issues such as girls' education and minority protection. The very wrong response is to impose sanctions that do not take away food from Taliban soldiers but do make women and children starve.
In this economically turbulent period, are you worried that Western countries will neglect their humanitarian obligations?
Yes, I'm afraid of that. One hundred million people have now for the first time in recorded history been displaced by war and violence. In 2011, it was 40 million. There has never been in modern times as many children going to bed hungry as there are this year. We need some countries to recognize that while they are struggling with high energy prices and nationalistic tendencies at home, it is significantly worse in the areas where we operate.
You returned from Somalia in June of this year. What is it like seeing a country in the grip of drought and starvation?
It's truly dramatic. I saw mothers and fathers walking for hundreds of kilometers to seek water and food. We need development, investment, resilience and better use of existing resources. We are part of the Building Resilient Communities in Somalia (BRCiS), a group of nine national and international NGOs created to balance short-term humanitarian needs with longer-term community preparedness. I witnessed dams being built, and bore holes equipped with solar-powered pumps so people can start to feed themselves independently.
How can individuals advocate for refugees?
Join and support the international NGOs. Write to politicians to say we want to live by elementary rules of compassion and solidarity. Reach out to those refugees and migrants who come to our communities, befriend them, help them integrate.
You have worked in this field for four decades. Is this era the worst?
It is a time of horrific contrasts. Never have there been so many displaced by violence and conflict, and so many with no chance to feed themselves. Climate change, COVID and conflict have merged to create a lethal cocktail. But the good news is that never have there been more effective national and international humanitarian and development organizations, better technological advances and greater resources. Never have there been as many billionaires, so there should be a possibility for us to elevate the bottom two billion people. Those at the very top have astronomical resources and they alone could have helped us reach people in great need.
In such relentlessly depressing times, is there any cause for hope?
I come back an optimist whenever I return from visiting colleagues working in difficult and dangerous circumstances. We have now helped more than a million children go to school and when I ask them what they want to become when they are older, they don't want to be fighters or soldiers or terrorists or criminals; they all want to be doctors, engineers, farmers and builders.
Andrew Connelly is a British freelance journalist focusing on politics, migration and conflict. He tweets @connellyandrew.