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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 48.
- Review Date: 2008-01-07
- Reviewer: Staff
Traveling the globe as the U.N.’s under–secretary general for humanitarian affairs and its emergency relief coordinator from 2003 to 2006, Norwegian diplomat Egeland has seen the best and worst of what humanity has to offer; in this emotionally and politically charged tome, he bluntly summarizes his findings. From crises as varied as genocide in Darfur, the 2004 East Asian tsunami and the religious fanaticism keeping Israel and Palestine in conflict, Egeland is concerned about innocent lives forever altered in these situations, and actively—and unabashedly—bemoans the lack of financial aid from larger nations. Tracing his passion for social justice to age 17, when he spent a summer volunteering for Colombia’s El Minuto de Dios, the special envoy, now a married father of two daughters, has been around enough presidents, dictators and NGOs to insightfully share his outlook on the conditions of the world, share fascinating details of conversations usually held behind closed doors, yet also concede mistakes made by both himself and the U.N. Though Egeland’s clipped and often clichéd prose can distract from the point he is trying to emphasize, he is a strong storyteller and an essential and candid eyewitness to the last three decades’ tragedies. (Mar.)
Humanitarian faces the world in crisis
For a moment, set aside consideration of the well-known humanitarian crises of recent years in Lebanon, Iraq, Colombia, Darfur and Zimbabwe, and contemplate northern Uganda. A rebel militia called the Lord's Resistance Army has kidnapped 20,000 children from that region in the last two decades to swell its ranks. Until a ceasefire in 2006, an estimated 40,000 children left their homes every night to gather at public meeting points, seeking safety in numbers.
Did you know that? Probably not. The international system for helping the oppressed is what humanitarian activist Jan Egeland calls an "immoral lottery." Some get attention and aid; others might as well be invisible. Egeland thinks it's a lousy system that needs to be overhauled. He makes his case with strong effect in A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity, his memoir of his tenure from 2003-2006 as the United Nations' top emergency relief official.
Egeland, a Norwegian steeped in his country's tradition of unaligned social activism, literally risked his life to negotiate with rebel leaders in Uganda, with some modest success. It's what he's always done, during his time at the UN, Amnesty International and the Norwegian Red Cross: He parachutes into horrendous crises, unflinchingly confronts all sides and usually manages to alleviate the suffering. But he knows better than anyone that he seldom makes much long-term difference.
As Egeland takes us along on his UN journeys to Latin America, the South Pacific tsunami zone, the Middle East and Africa, he is an equal opportunity critic. The U.S., he says, is generous with emergency money for natural disasters, but miserly with development aid. The leaders of developing nations, the "South," too often refuse to take responsibility in their own regions. China pretends it's still a beleaguered underdog rather than the rich superpower it is. Time and time again, both sides in conflicts are intransigent and incompetent, content to see innocents suffer rather than compromise their hard-line positions.
It's a sad picture, but Egeland has some hope. We have all the tools for coherent multilateralism, he argues in his final prescriptive chapter. We just need the political will and the compassion.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.