Optimist in a World of Turmoil: An Interview with Jan Egeland

John Lindner
Ray Waddle

Jan Egeland, special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General, has been called “the world’s conscience.” Perhaps more than any other individual on the global stage, he helped marshal the compassion and resources of millions when genocidal catastrophe descended on Darfur and the tsunami devastated East Asia.

Born in 1957, Egeland has been on the case nearly thirty years as humanitarian, peace worker, and human rights advocate. His career began in his native Norway, where he served in the ministry of foreign affairs, at the Red Cross, and as a peace research fellow. Among his many accomplishments, he helped initiate talks that led to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord in 1993.

In 2003 he was appointed United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. This summer he stepped down from that position to return to Norway, keeping the title of U.N. special adviser.

Former U.N. head Kofi Annan hailed Egeland as a tireless advocate who “coordinated our humanitarian efforts in neglected and forgotten crises, from northern Uganda to Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo” and “traveled to the frontlines of conflicts to bear witness to the suffering of civilian populations in Darfur, Sudan, Colombia, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and brought the world’s attention to the suffering there.”

Egeland has seen the world enter a new century marked by terrorism, globalization, the renewal of religious politics and other challenges for nation-states and their citizens.

Reflections adviser John Lindner and editor Ray Waddle recently sat down with Egeland at the United Nations for this interview.

REFLECTIONS As someone who has dealt with civil conflicts where religion is often in the foreground, how do you think about the issue of religion and citizenship? Is religion part of the problem, or a solution to global conflict?

JAN EGELAND I now have been doing peace work and conflict-related work since I was 19, when I left Norway for Colombia, Latin America. I worked there with a Catholic relief organization called Minuto de Dios, “God’s Minute,” and since then I’ve been involved in a dozen peace processes in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Balkans. I have seen faith-based organizations and churches be both at the forefront of peace efforts and at the forefront of aggression, strife, and even violence. At times you see them on both sides at the same time. It can be very confusing to one who comes from the outside looking at the situation. Like many others, I have observed that the church, and religion, and Christianity can work both ways. … There’s a lot of mobilization on either side.

I believe this generation has the chance to put an end to massive suffering as we know it. When you’ve got two billion rich and one billion with less than one dollar a day, it’s nonsense that the rich do not lift them up.

The strength of religion, of course, is it offers a lot of positive energy and idealism, like in Latin America, where there are priests willing to do anything for the poor, the vulnerable, the civilians. Yet then we see, for example in the Balkans, people are willing to do anything to tear down whom they are told are the enemies of your religion. And certainly for us peacemakers, if religion comes in on the wrong side, it pollutes the whole thing. … How do you argue with people who say (in the Middle East): there’s nothing to discuss, read the Bible, it’s our land. Or: read the Koran. This is the third most important mosque in the world and cannot be compromised. … So we seem to be going from a period of moderation in the religions to a period of fervent polarization. But there are very promising forces, religious forces, in all these conflict areas, and we have to strengthen those, and we have to try to undermine those who misuse religion.

REFLECTIONS Do you see a pattern to what religion does right when it is part of the solution to civil strife? Are religious people putting doctrines aside and just getting out and pursuing ethical action? Is there something we can learn from certain examples?

JAN EGELAND When someone says, I am acting on the Gospel’s main theme, which is love for humankind, it’s a great thing, it’s always been so. But when groups use the holy scriptures, on either side, as prescriptions—that’s the biggest danger because then we get mutually excluding propositions, and we get strife forever. It’s when they use the Gospel of love—let’s find compromises, let’s see how we can forgive, how we can meet the other side—that’s wonderful.

REFLECTIONS Are the nation-state and the role of citizenship weakening today? Is there some failure in the notion of citizenship that’s driving people away from national identities to religious identities as an organizing principle?

JAN EGELAND It could well be. It could be that globalization is, in a way, undermining the nation-state. Now we talk as much about the global community as we talk about regional communities—the northwest, the southeast and so on. I’ve been very struck and worried of late at seeing the new East/West conflict emerging. I grew up in Norway, a country in NATO…so the East/West conflict was part of my upbringing, and we were afraid of a third world war. Now that East/West conflict is over, and those once-heavily militarized borders now see a lot of exchange.

The new East/West conflict is between the capitalist/Christian West led by the United States and an Islamic East, perhaps especially the Arab countries. I hesitate to use the “struggle of civilizations” because it’s a totally wrong concept, but those tensions are there. … When you see in Jordan that 90 percent of the population define themselves as hostile to the United States and the West, in a country that has had a moderate, pro-Western monarchy, then something is happening here. And what is happening is a lot of frustration in many societies. They feel there is a dominant cultural force that has taken over, in a way, and they feel alienated. … Some feel they should go back to their roots, the religion of their fathers and their forefathers, and they go to extreme versions of it, fundamentalist versions. But as a Scandinavian I am taken aback by how some evangelical communities in the United States would speak about Islamic organizations and look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms that are void of the reality I have lived on the ground.

REFLECTIONS With the collapse of the Cold War, it’s argued that the age of ideology, at least for a time, has been suspended, because so many political ideologies in the twentieth century were discredited, Marxism for instance, leaving only what—capitalism, Americanism, traditional religion? If that’s the clash, can we get beyond it?

JAN EGELAND I’m an optimist. I may be wrong, but I’ve traveled now in 120 countries, and met more guerrilla leaders, mass murderers, more bad people than anybody alive, probably. So people say, Do you sleep at night? you must be very depressed, and so on. And I say, no, I’m pretty optimistic, actually. The world is better now for more people today than it was in 1989. There is 50 percent more peace today than in 1989. We can prove it, it’s been consistently researched. There is for the first time less than one billion people in the world who live on less than one dollar a day. In 1989, a group of researchers (that reports annually) found ten genocides in 1989, one today. In the 1960s there were between 20 and 25 military coups per year in the world. Now there are two or three per year.

So we’re making progress, actually. It’s not like it’s going steadily worse. … The image people have of the world going in the wrong direction is partly for the very good reason that we have more information than at any time before. So now we follow every bombing in Iraq and every killing in Palestine or in Israel; any shooting in America, we see. That’s why it’s important to try to get the overall picture: for instance hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in East Asia and Southeast Asia over the last few years. …

I also believe multilateralism will have a renaissance—in part, because of the debacle of unilateralism in Iraq and elsewhere. I think few people are aware that, in the last four or five years, peace has broken out in Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Burundi. War ended in Eastern Congo, in Northern Uganda, Nepal, and Ivory Coast. Why did it happen? Because the U.N. and regional organizations and neighbors came together and helped internal forces.

I believe this generation has the chance to put an end to massive suffering as we know of it. When you’re got two billion rich and one billion with less than one dollar a day, it’s nonsense that the rich do not lift them up. I mean more rich have fewer poor to lift up, so it’s an obligation to do it. … We can reach now any spot on the globe within twenty-four hours and start relief operations. We avoided hundreds of thousands of lives being lost in Darfur when a million lives were at stake of being lost. …

So I am quite optimistic. I do see a renaissance of international cooperation. … We’re living now in a multipolar world. We’ve gone from a bipolar world when we grew up—Moscow, Washington, two poles—to a unipolar world, which my children have known—the United States, one pole—to now having China and India, emerging superpowers. In Africa, the United States is far less influential if you go country by country in Africa than China is. China is buying up Africa at the moment, and we have to do two things: recognize the importance of China, and then start to responsibilize China, not as a developing country, but as a superpower. So when the West understands we’re not the only show in town, and when the rest of the world also no longer treats the West as the only show in town or the only enemy in town—then, I think, we’re into a much changed mode, which will be much more positive.

REFLECTIONS How should religious communities begin to do the public education and find new paradigms needed for our national communities to engage an era of greater pluralism and multilateralism?

JAN EGELAND It’s a very good question, a key one, because I see three clouds on the horizon, big ones, in an otherwise quite optimistic scenario with more peace and more prosperity and more international cooperation, better technology. The three clouds: one is the climate, which is the scariest; the second, which I mentioned, is this clash of cultures East/ West; and the third is migration and migration pressures. The United States can still teach most of the other industrial countries a big lesson on migration. It is interesting to see that Muslim citizens and immigrants in America are generally less disappointed than they are in Europe. Very interesting. It’s easier for Al Qaida to get a foothold in Europe, it seems, than in North America. …

It is a paradox that migration is growing and growing as an issue because you see more and more economic growth all over the world. However, the economic growth (of poor countries) still has been much slower than ours; they got less poor and we got filthy rich, which means that the difference is still so enormous. And then the additional trend is that they know, for the first time, exactly how rich we are. I suppose in Morocco (decades ago) it wasn’t that clear how the Europeans lived then, and I know fifty or a hundred years ago it wasn’t that clear in Central or South America how the U.S. was. Today they know exactly how life is in Miami and in London and in Oslo, and they don’t want to live a life without jobs and without a good future.

REFLECTIONS If America is a moderating example, is it because of the nation’s prosperity or the specific values taught here?

JAN EGELAND It’s an immigrant nation, and you have a system whereby wave after wave after wave came. Interestingly, the Muslim wave in recent generations was not worse off than the Irish were or the Polish were and so on. Yes, there was struggle, but there was also the possibility to get out of it. Whereas I think many of the Muslim immigrants who came to France and Britain and (elsewhere in Europe) seem never to get into mainstream society. This may be the one big lesson we have to learn in Europe from America still. …

REFLECTIONS In international circles and at the U.N. there is much conversation about “civil society,” a particular term that isn’t very well known in the United States. Does the civil society notion provide a better framework for thinking about the public role of religion today?

JAN EGELAND Civil society means a lot. One of the very hopeful trends is that you see student groups, women’s groups, farmers’ groups, trade union groups, humanist groups, faith-based groups, all organizing to work for good. I was the keynote speaker in Singapore a few weeks back for World Vision’s global retreat. World Vision (a global Christian relief organization) started as a U.S. evangelical organization, and is now the biggest aid organization on earth. And it’s global now. You’d see mostly non-Americans among the people who came from all over the world—fundraising as much nearly in Hong Kong and Shanghai and Bangkok and Singapore as they do in Minneapolis and Seattle and other strongholds. So we see civil society in many forms and shapes. And the most hopeful is we see it a lot in the (global) South. With the tsunami you would see a lot of Asian groups, Middle Eastern groups come to the relief of the people, not only the Northwesterners. Again, this new world has the capacity to go in the right direction.

And of course, civil society can also be a great force for peace, development, prosperity, education, human rights, civil rights. However, as a good social democrat and Scandinavian, I must hasten to say: there must be a state. If there is no state structure, then we see that, in Africa and so on, you don’t get development in the larger society. In many places now, the problem is that the state is too weak. There are many interesting (civil society) movements but the state also has to be able to set standards—education standards, health standards, law, order. It’s one of the biggest problems in the South that we have weak states and bad governments—but good civil society.

REFLECTIONS Does civil society in America look different from Europe?

JAN EGELAND There are many more faith-based groups in North America than in Europe. That is of course one distinguishing factor: secularism has been on the rise in a country like mine for the last one hundred years. … That is the difference between Europe and North America. In Europe, you don’t have revival after revival after revival as seen every ten years in America, where they say there are more than one hundred million evangelical Christians.

But, (in Europe) everybody is a member of several community groups, and it’s very much centered around the children: choirs, brass bands, foot- ball, handball, volleyball, skiing, or environmental groups, political groups, and very, very strong international solidarity. So, it’s interesting: even though Scandinavians pay more tax than anybody—I mean it’s one percent of gross national income, which is more than five times the global average for rich countries—this hasn’t affected fundraising through faith-based organizations, also Red Cross, humanist organizations, solidarity groups, and so forth. I discussed this with some American faith-based leaders who say you need to have the faith base to do the fundraising. I’m a Christian Lutheran church member, but I’ve seen it’s not necessarily so that it has to be faith-based to have international or national and local compassion. It can also be done by humanists.

REFLECTIONS This raises a perennial question. Is secularism strong enough to provide a moral basis for society? Can society rise to goodness without religion?

JAN EGELAND I think Scandinavia is a reflection of the trend of a strong rise over the last forty years of international compassion and solidarity. If you talk about the Norwegian taxpayer, who is the most heavily burdened in the world in terms of international assistance, (research) shows that nearly 90 percent of the population will say that we should be at this level or higher. A significant portion says we shouldn’t go down from 1 percent to 0.15 percent, which is the United States (average). We should go from 1 percent to 2 percent. That is happening in a country where 4 percent of the population was in church in the last week, and 23 percent to 25 percent would say that they are believers, Christian or otherwise. This kind of feeling of international solidarity is very strong and comes from school, comes from parents. Those who say we should concentrate only on ourselves are seen as outcasts. … So yes, you can have a very strong humanist orientation in a society. …

But again, religion should play a role to bring us perspective: There is a higher ideal, a higher purpose in life. But religion has to work intensively with itself to avoid becoming a tool of conflict and again clearly be a tool for peace, because it is the ideal of every religion I know of to work for peace.