Commentary Magazine

A Billion Lives by Jan Egeland

The Global Bureaucrat

A Billion Lives:
An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity
by Jan Egeland
HarperCollins. 272 pp. $27.00

As the chief administrator of the United Nations emergency-relief agency from the summer of 2003 to the end of 2006, Jan Egeland had a full plate. Mass murder in Darfur, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the fallout of Israel’s 2006 war with Hizballah in Lebanon—these are just a few of the events he reflects upon in his memoir, A Billion Lives.

The role of Egeland’s agency—whose formal name is the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)—is to mobilize and coordinate civilian aid in the event of such natural or man-made calamities. The work is enormously important, largely unheralded, and often dispiriting. On average, OCHA responds to no fewer than fifteen major emergencies every year. Thus, the recollections of the man who directed it ought to tell us a great deal about the challenges of mobilizing the money, the rescue supplies, and the international will to mount rescues of tormented populations.

But anyone turning for that story to A Billion Lives will be disappointed. This is, instead, the epic story of one man, and of his battle, under the aegis of the United Nations, to save a suffering humanity despite the torpor, animus, and misplaced priorities of the world’s wealthy and powerful—in other words, of the West and, especially, the United States.



Egeland’s chosen stage was the press conference. Near the beginning of A Billion Lives, he recalls a 2006 trip to the town of Guiglo in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. There, a civil war had been raging for four years. United Nations peacekeepers had fled. Visiting a refugee camp, Egeland was confronted by a victim of the violence and rapine. In a grammar remarkably similar to Egeland’s own, the refugee asks: “Do you realize that our destiny is in your hands? That tonight we will again be alone with no one to protect us and help us?”

And Egeland responds: “The only promise I can make is that I will speak the uncensored truth about [your] plight to the powerful members of the UN Security Council next week.” And so he does. And the Security Council, as he tells it, stirs itself to action (although it is not clear to what end). Meanwhile, far from passive himself, Egeland calls . . . a press conference, whose result, he writes entirely without irony, is that

hundreds of millions all over the world will receive the message of the refugees in western Ivory Coast and hear who are accountable and why the member states must take action.

Time and again in A Billion Lives, Egeland stands spot-lit on the international stage, lecturing the less enlightened on the subject of their shortcomings. “We who witness the unmasked realities have a responsibility as never before to shake up and embarrass the powerful,” he declaims. “Our only option is to speak the truth, always.” When the camera light blinks on, he is never short of incendiary phrases about the derelictions of “the powerful.”

At, for example, a press conference aimed at drumming up a massive amount of aid for victims of the Asian tsunami, Egeland notoriously assailed certain rich nations of the West as “stingy.” He claims here that his remark was taken out of context and was wrongly thought to have been directed at the United States, which at that point had committed only $4 million to tsunami aid. (The number would eventually balloon to $350 million in public funds, plus hundreds of millions more in private assistance.) But why would an international civil servant fling such an insult in the midst of appealing for donor assistance during an immense tragedy? Is reckless talk of this kind likely to concentrate public focus on the primary issue—that is, the need for aid—or rather to deflect it? As the excoriations pile up, one begins to suspect that the man uttering them is less a humanitarian than a showboat and a provocateur.

When, moreover, Egeland is not denouncing the alleged parsimony of the West, there is always Israel. Surveying the war damage in Beirut in August 2006, he responded to a BBC reporter’s question by characterizing Israel’s war operations thusly:

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

Once again Egeland feigns dismay here that his wholly unsubstantiated charge, which he did not even bother to “balance” against the plain evidence of Hizballah’s flouting of every canon of the international law of warfare, flashed around the world. But this time he adds coyly that “many are pleased that finally someone is ‘speaking the truth from the UN side.’” A few weeks later, he reports with satisfaction, he repeated his performance by loudly condemning as “completely immoral” Israel’s use of cluster bombs during the last stages of the Lebanon conflict—and was hailed for his boldness by his colleagues at UN headquarters:

I am repeatedly approached in the cafeteria, elevator, and hallways by strangers who want to congratulate me that there “finally is someone telling the truth.”



That is: telling the truth, UN-style. Something other than your traditional humanitarian official, Egeland is rather to be understood as representing the new species of UN bureaucrat that came to the fore after the arrival of Kofi Annan as the organization’s Secretary General in 1997. Annan was the UN’s first global superstar: lionized by the Clinton administration, hailed by CNN, and capitalized by Ted Turner, who gave what was touted as $1 billion in Time Warner stock to Annan’s newly created United Nations Foundation.

Under Annan’s leadership, the UN would no longer define itself merely as a high-minded talk shop for conflict resolution and international service (except rhetorically, or when under criticism). Instead, it became a highly politicized congeries of funds, programs, and ostensibly decentralized agencies aggressively marketing global “peace and development” and busily branding skeptics and questioners as enemies of humanity, if not of the planet Earth.

In line with this makeover, the upper reaches of the new UN became peppered with aggressive national politicians and bureaucrats, of whom Egeland was one. As a precocious young man, he had chaired Norway’s branch of Amnesty International before becoming head of the Norwegian Red Cross and, ultimately, secretary for humanitarian aid in the socialist government of Gro Harlem Brundtland. After that government fell and Brundtland herself moved to head the World Health Organization, Egeland morphed into an international trouble-shooter for Annan. Today, as the special envoy on climate change for Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-Moon, Brundtland is the spearhead of yet another UN global crusade, while Egeland currently runs a think tank back in Norway.

Seen in this light, A Billion Lives is intended not just to provide an account for the ages of one man’s experience but to serve as a long job application for some as yet unspecified senior position in the burgeoning global system that pivots on the United Nations the way the solar system pivots on the sun. As Egeland writes of that system with admirable frankness:

At our disposal we now have the biggest and best network ever of like-minded intergovernmental, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations as channels of future investments in peace and development.



The fact Egeland points to here is an important one, and entirely circular. With the funds it raises, the United Nations feeds and waters the same array of non-governmental organizations that incessantly calls for still more money and authority to be allocated away from national governments and to the United Nations. In that sense, Egeland’s chidings of the “stingy” West are to be seen not as the impassioned grandstanding of a humanitarian-in-a-hurry but as part of a much broader effort to cement the role of the UN as the channel for funneling public and private money to all manner of international causes.

Is this a good thing? In A Billion Lives, thinking back to 2004, Egeland recounts the worry he felt that an ad-hoc coalition of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia might end up competing with the UN as tsunami aid coordinators. He need not have worried. While Egeland thundered, and the UN’s myriad committees and sub-organizations consulted on the fine points of aid “coordination,” an armada of aid from the United States (which sent two dozen naval vessels, including the carrier Abraham Lincoln), Australia (32 vessels), Singapore, and Israel rushed to the scene, providing food, distilled water, blankets, medicine, and vital air logistics support. A full ten months passed before Egeland himself would visit the disaster region. He was busy coordinating.

Indeed, according to Egeland, his own most significant achievement in the tsunami crisis lay not in the saving of lives but in the establishment of a ten-year “framework” for global “disaster prevention”—all this being the fruit of a 168-nation follow-up conference whose resolutions are not, he adds, legally binding. In crowing about this and similar “achievements,” Egeland occasionally tips his hat to a number of his fellow bureaucrats. But as for the ordinary aid workers who in this instance and countless others have selflessly taken the lead role whenever and wherever disaster strikes, they occupy hardly any place at all in A Billion Lives. But then again, they are not laboring to save the world; only to save people.

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