“We haven’t seen this kind of displacement of people since the Second World War. I hope we will have a turning point in 2018, but that will only happen if we pull together,” says Jan Egeland in this end-of-year interview.
A: 2017 was a year like no else in the sense that we did fantastic things on the assistance front. Remember that in 2016 we were predicting enormous famines in many countries: in Somalia, in South Sudan, in Yemen and elsewhere. In most of these places we averted famine, we reached millions and millions of people. That is a great achievement for our field colleagues. But we were not able to protect people in 2017. So we have this enormous trend now in international aid work: we are able to assist more people in more hard to reach places than ever before, but we are not able to even to protect the most vulnerable women, children and the wounded. Not even hospitals are safe. I think that is the priority for 2018 and beyond: we need to protect people more so that they are not displaced in the first place.
Q: Where have we failed to protect?
A: The besieged areas in Syria were places where people really were dying because of the lack of assistance. We were not able to get medical relief. We were not even able to get in food convoys in many of these besieged areas. Elsewhere in the country, there was a lot of assistance but not protection against armed men willing to go to any extent to fight, even if it cost the life of civilians around them. In Yemen, we saw a manmade catastrophe develop by the day. Why on earth would we want to create famine-like conditions through a boycott? And even worse, this is a boycott of Yemen done by a Saudi-led military coalition, supported by many of our very generous donors. The US, the UK and others help us with funding to provide assistance but then they are condoning something which is actually a lack of protection.
Q: What crises are you most concerned about next year?
A: I hope that the big war is over in Syria. It has displaced some 12 million Syrians and it was – still is – a terrible war. It can end in 2018. It is the year where we hope for political agreements, political solutions and possibilities of return. Syrians want to return but most them feel it is unsafe to return, it’s too early to make conditions possible and ripe for return. And then I’d like to also mention the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. It’s back as a tremendous epicentre of displacement and suffering. Many thought that DR Congo was better than ten years ago, when we saw genocide-like conditions there, next to Rwanda, where we had a huge genocide. And I fear, when we make up the book for 2018, it may be up there on the top again in terms of internal displacement.
Q: What will be the biggest challenges facing the humanitarian community next year?
A: The biggest challenge we will have is to keep up funding for tens of millions that are in great need. We are accumulating displacement. It is a testament of two things. Number one, we are not solving conflicts, displacement is continuing and countries are back to displacement and conflict. DR Congo is an example of that. We are also not helping people return, resettle or integrate. Too many people are in limbo, in hopelessness for too long. That should change in 2018. But I fear that we will have too little resources for a way out of misery and displacement.
Q: The humanitarian system has been described as broken. How can it be more effective?
A: I think the humanitarian system, in many ways, is more effective than many believe in terms of providing assistance. Mortality is down, morbidity is down, disease control has improved, emergency education reaches more people, emergency shelter is better. We are losing fewer lives than we did when I started many years back with humanitarian work. The problem is we are not preventing suffering. We are not able to prevent people from being displaced. We save their lives once they have been displaced. So we need to be better in preventing suffering and in finding long term solutions.
Q: What can ordinary people do to help?
A: Ordinary people like you and me can do a lot, really. We have to voice more solidarity with refugees, with victims of war. Why are there not more public opinions saying “let this country, my country, be a safe haven for more people”. Why is it that Uganda and Bangladesh, two poor countries, are the most generous in receiving refugees? The top P5 in the Security Council – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – all took fewer refugees than Sweden took, and they took a fraction of what Uganda took in 2016 and in 2017. We should act for more humanity within our nations and we should also act for higher investment in preventing suffering elsewhere. Aid budgets are a fraction of they should be. Most countries give 0.2 per cent of their gross national income in foreign assistance. It is really nothing compared to the needs.
Q: Yemen looks on track to face famine in 2018. What needs to be done to resolve this conflict and prevent mass starvation?
A: Three things have to happen in Yemen in 2018. The blockade, the embargo, the sanctions that are not allowing in supplies, not even food – they have to be lifted. Those who have influence on the Saudi-led coalition have to make it be lifted. Secondly, we need a political process, UN-led peace talks. The Houthi, a regime in Sana’a, and the rebels or the opposition fighters, they have to sit down at the negotiation table. Saudi Arabia has to enable that and not sabotage that. And then, finally we have to have access as humanitarians to all over the country. We have too many access restrictions now, which means that some 20 million Yemenis are vulnerable and seven million are at risk of famine. I hope we can prevent a famine in 2018, like was largely averted in 2017