ECW Interviews Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

By External Source
Jul 5 2021 (IPS-Partners)

Jan Egeland has been the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council since August 2013, a role which oversees the work of the humanitarian organisation in over 30 countries affected by conflict and disaster.

In June 2021, he was appointed Eminent Person of The Grand Bargain initiative. Within this role he is responsible for promoting and advocating for the advancement of The Grand Bargain’s commitments to better serve people in need. It is a two-year position he will hold alongside his day-to-day NRC position.

From January to May 2021, Egeland was appointed by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, as Chair of the Independent Senior Advisory Panel on humanitarian deconfliction in Syria.

In 2015, he was appointed by former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, as Special Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Within this position he chaired the humanitarian task force responsible for the safety and protection of Syrian civilians. He stepped down from this role on 1 December 2018.

From 2011 to 2013 Jan Egeland served as the European Director at Human Rights Watch. He was appointed Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General for Conflict Prevention and Resolution from 2006 and 2008.

Prior to that, Jan Egeland was UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2003 to 2006. In that role he helped reform the global humanitarian response system and organized the international response to the Asian Tsunami, and crises from Darfur to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon.

In 2006, Time magazine named Jan Egeland one of the “100 people who shape our world.”

He served as Director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs from 2007 to 2011. He was the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Colombia from 1999 to 2001, where he led shuttle diplomacy efforts between armed groups and the government.

From 1992 to 1997, Jan Egeland served as State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has also been Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross and has held leading positions at Amnesty International.

Jan Egeland has 30 years of experience from international work with human rights, humanitarian crises and conflict resolution, and was among the initiators of the peace negotiations that led to the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993.

Jan Egeland published ‘A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity‘ in 2010.

ECW: World Refugee Day commemorates the resilience of refugees around the world. This year’s theme is inclusion, noting that together we heal, learn and shine. With this in mind, how do you see NRC moving forward with ECW and other organizations, to ensure that refugee children are included in education programmes in host communities so it is a win-win situation for all involved?

Jan Egeland: When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, about 1 billion students had their access to education completely disrupted. A year on, and three quarters of a billion students remain affected. The past year and a half has been particularly tough on displaced children and youth, who often do not have connectivity or access to distance learning that many school goers in richer nations had.

At NRC, we promote including displaced children and youth in formal education systems, in line with global policy to mainstreaming refugees into national education systems. We strive to be a champion for durable solutions, by prioritising recognised certification of learning so that displaced children and youth can continue their education and use their skills through local integration, resettlement or return.

Only when it is not possible or appropriate to include refugees in formal education systems, e.g. in cases where government policy or the age of learners are barriers to inclusion, will we engage in alternative learning opportunities. Working with ECW and other partners, NRC will continue to advocate for governments to include refugee children in their national education programmes.

ECW: The Norwegian Refugee Council works in more than 30 countries around the world as a global advocate to help those forced to flee their homes. With 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and so many urgent needs, which are the refugee emergencies that you feel have most been forgotten by the international community and why is it so important to address them, now?

Jan Egeland: The three most forgotten crises in the world today are DR Congo, Cameroon and Burkina Faso, according to NRC’s World’s Most Neglected Displacement Crises report. These countries have become utterly neglected in terms of the scale of humanitarian needs, a massive lack of funding, as well as media and diplomatic inattention.

DRC is top of that list. We see it as one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. A lethal combination of spiralling violence, record hunger levels and total neglect has ignited a mega-crisis that warrants a mega-response. But instead, millions of families on the brink of the abyss seem to be forgotten by the outside world and are left shut off from any support lifeline.

When I visited DRC in May, it gained international attention momentarily when a volcano erupted in Goma. Sadly, when there is no volcanic eruption, the thousands that flee their homes each day go unnoticed. They do not make headlines, they seldom receive high-level donor visits and are rarely prioritized by international diplomacy. This is the case for many of the crisis areas we operate in.

It is therefore so good to see ECW’s emergency investment in DRC, from which NRC has received new multi-year funding that runs through to 2024. We hope the international community follows suit and better supports these neglected crises, otherwise the human suffering will continue and likely worsen. Many conflicts risk spreading across regions, embroiling countries that are comparatively more stable. For example, insecurity in Venezuela, South Sudan and Nigeria have all led to refugee crises in neighbouring countries.

ECW: As strategic partners of Education Cannot Wait, the Norwegian Refugee Council and other partners develop and implement plans to address refugees’ needs. A key advantage of the arrangement is funding to address not only emergency relief and early recovery responses, but to also link this to sustainable development. What are some impactful NRC/ECW projects and how are the funding needs?

Jan Egeland: NRC is doing important work in education that supports longer-term sustainable development. For example, ECW supports NRC’s Better Learning Programme in the Middle East, a programme designed to provide learners with mental health and psychosocial support to deal with the trauma and stress of being forced to flee. Through the ECW investment, we strengthen regional capacity to integrate school-based mental health and psychosocial support into education programming, advocate for enhanced mental health services for children and youth, and ensure the programme is available as a public good that can be scaled up and replicated across education in emergency projects.

In Nigeria, we are partnering with ECW for the first time this year through the country’s multi-year resilience programme. Working with other NGOs, including local actors, the UN and the government, we will target nearly 3 million young people, half of whom are displaced, over the next three years. The programme will build and renovate classrooms and learning spaces, support stipends for teachers, and increase continuity of learning by working with local partners to keep children and youth in school. Part of this programme also focuses on working with local and national educational authorities to develop capacity and have the resources to promote, administer and manage quality education programmes. This will be essential for long-term progress for Nigeria’s next generation.

ECW: Congratulations! While continuing to lead the Norwegian Refugee Council, this month you also assume the position of ‘Eminent Person of the Grand Bargain.’ The Grand Bargain was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit with a key goal being to increase the amount and effectiveness of aid delivery to people in need. How will you promote, and seek funds, for refugee children’s education?

Jan Egeland: The Grand Bargain aims to shift resources away from draining backroom activities to frontline delivery. This means that by making our work more efficient, we will release more resources for those who need it, including education for children and youth.

At the Grand Bargain Annual Meeting in June, we agreed to make our efforts in the next two years more focused and strategic, and in addition to accelerating localisation of aid, our priority is to increase quality funding. This would make our programmes much more predictable, which is especially important in planning reliable and quality education programmes. Strengthened engagement of local actors and participation of people affected by crises are also key priorities of the Grand Bargain. If we get these objectives right, we will have more stable, secure, meaningful school programmes for all children.

ECW: The World Humanitarian Summit recognized that children’s education in crisis situations must be part of a life-saving response. Refugee children are among the furthest left behind in responding to crises. Why is it so important to continue refugee children’s education from the outset of their refugee experience until they safely return home, or a longer-term solution is found for them and their families?

Jan Egeland: Education is a fundamental human right for all children and youth. Quality education provides children and young people with the skills, capacities and confidence they need to allow them to live lives that they have reason to value. Education also creates the voice through which other rights can be claimed and protected. These rights are particularly important for refugee and other displaced children and youth, and quality education provides protection, a sense of normality and hope for the future. Evidence consistently shows that education is a top priority for people who are displaced, and it should be made available from the onset of an emergency.

NRC works with displacement-affected and refugee children and youth to support them with education throughout the whole learning cycle – including after they finish school. We provide young women and men with opportunities for post-primary education, including technical and vocational education and training, agricultural training, and tertiary educational opportunities.

These opportunities are essential to the development of young people, to ensure that they have opportunities to pursue longer-term solutions and remain contributing members of the communities to which they belong, especially if they return home.

ECW: Climate change-induced disasters increasingly contribute to forced displacement, with +30 million people fleeing disasters in 2020; up 5 million from 2019. Such disasters mean many refugees are forced to flee multiple times, making them even more vulnerable. What are the main challenges in addressing climate change as it affects refugee children and what are NRC and partners doing to address them?

Jan Egeland: All aid organisations can, and should, do more to address climate change. At NRC, we are working to do better. We are currently in a process called ‘greening the orange’ – developing a new climate strategy, through which we aim to become carbon neutral in the future. This was a pledge I made at the Global Refugee Forum in 2019. Greening the Orange started as a grassroots initiative by staff and it will lead our climate work internally and externally.

In the meantime, we are already working on education projects that are climate-friendly. For example, in Colombia we are running a renewable energy and education project called Zero Carbon Education. In this project we installed an energy system with nine solar panels at a school in the Colorado community. This lit up six school classrooms, a kitchen, a communal church and two outdoor lamps for a sports centre. The project also provided environmental training on recycling practices, ecology and sustainable food to promote environmental awareness in school. The installation of the solar panels was accompanied by the construction and adaptation of a community garden for students and teachers. The children and adults received the panels and learned to maintain the new solar energy system through trainings.

We need to implement more projects like this across the world that tackle education and climate change at the same time.

ECW: We’d love to learn a bit more about you on a personal level. Could you tell us what are the three books that have influenced you the most – personally and/or professionally – and why you’d recommend these books to other people?

Jan Egeland: The first book I read as a child was “Nobody’s Boy” about the orphan Remi who was sold to a street musician at age 8. It made a huge impression on me, as I was the same age as Remi.

Then in my student years I was shocked by reading Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America” about the systematic exploitation and imperialism in South and Central America.

Now I am fascinated by “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan. It is a masterly account of the historic Jesus.


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Flaws in Asia’s Pearl

In March 2021, the UN Human Rights Council was given a mandate to collect and preserve information and evidence of crimes related to Sri Lanka’s 27-year long civil war that ended in 2009. Meanwhile, Western nations taking a cue from the Human Rights Council’s highly critical resolution on Sri Lanka appear to be tightening the noose. Credit: UN Photo / Violaine Martin. 43rd session of the Human Rights Council.

By Neville de Silva
LONDON, Jul 5 2021 – For well over a century Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, has been known to the world as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ for its multifaceted attractions. That is until blurb writers ruined it all with hyperbolic epithets that obscured the country’s magnetic charms, which attracted visitors from around the globe.

But one particular epithet has lived up to its name. Called ‘a country like no other’, Sri Lanka is increasingly beginning to prove this true – though not for the reasons that originally prompted it.

Over the years, groups of professional politicians and those drawn to the sphere, not to serve the public but by thoughts of self-aggrandisement and avarice, have dragged this once prosperous country, with its many natural resources and strong democratic institutions, towards its nadir.

From being Asia’s first democracy, with universal franchise granted in 1931– even before independence from Britain in 1948– political commentators and increasingly the public now fear that the country is teetering on the brink of militarism, with retired and serving senior officers in key positions in the civil administration, and others appointed to virtually oversee Sri Lanka’s 25 administrative districts.

While there is both international and local disquiet over the deterioration of democratic values, of more immediate concern is the country’s dire economic state. The situation is so critical that less than two weeks ago, the respected Sunday Times wrote that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government is ‘steps away from bankruptcy’.

At the same time, well-known economists were pressing alarm bells, warning about the possible breakdown of the banking system ‘causing a collapse of the economy’. The direct cause of the current crisis was the sudden hike in fuel prices in late June, which is bound to have a ripple effect on other commodities and services.

Bakers are already threatening to raise their prices, which could well have happened by the time this article appears.

A thermometer gun is used to take a boy’s temperature in Sri Lanka. Credit: UNICEF/Chameera Laknath

With the prices of staples such as rice and vegetables unbearably high, the average consumer, already burdened by the steepening cost of living, is being pushed to the wall by a government that came to power some 20 months or so ago promising to reduce poverty and improve living standards.

Rising living costs are compounded by a still uncontrollable Covid pandemic. This has compelled the government to impose lockdowns and curb travel – restrictions which are haphazardly lifted and re-imposed, despite the best medical advice – as daily wage earners run out of cash to buy food for their families and meet other domestic needs.

Political commentators and increasingly the public fear that the country is on the brink of militarism

Last month, the Sri Lanka Medical Association urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to continue lockdown restrictions without interruption–”considering that over 2,000 Covid 19 cases and over 50 deaths are being reported daily” and also the detection of the highly dangerous Indian variant’.

At the time of writing, health authorities reported another 52 fatalities and put the daily count of positive cases at 2,098. But such statistics seems to matter little to politicians and their military and medical cohorts, tasked with combating the spreading pandemic but ignoring the accumulating data and the advice of specialist medical professionals.

Meanwhile, the vaccination of the population, according to a pre-determined programme, has been disrupted by politicians who have drawn up their own priority lists and even threatened doctors and health workers who refused to accept their dictates, raising law enforcement issues and public criticism.

Those with power and influence find backdoor means to gain access to vaccinations, at the expense of an increasingly frustrated and angry public, who stand in long queues for hours awaiting their turn.

While the overall Covid containment programme is reportedly in a mess, along with an economy going steadily downhill, another pearl turned up in the Indian Ocean close to Colombo port. The X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-registered container ship, was carrying noxious cargo, including a leaking nitric acid container. With Qatar and India refusing to admit the vessel for repairs, it turned up in Colombo

That poisonous pearl spewed nitric acid into the ocean and then self-immolated, burning for days before part of it went down on June 2. As a result of the incident, more than 150 marine animals, including 100 turtles, 15 dolphins, three whales and scores of birds and fish beached in various parts of the country, not to mention the kilometres of beach covered with plastic pollutants, leading a UN representative in Colombo to describe the episode as a ‘significant damage to the planet’.

Meanwhile, the original pearl of the Indian Ocean is struggling to keep its head above water. The Sunday Times’ economics columnist Dr Nimal Sanderatne, an agricultural economist, former central banker and academic, painted a bleak picture in his weekly column in late June: ‘The external finances of the country are in a perilous state. External reserves have fallen, the trade deficit is widening, the balance of payments deficit is increasing and there are foreign debt repayments of about US$4 billion during the rest of the year.’

His views about the parlous state of the economy were echoed by several other economists, including the spokesman of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party SJB, Dr Harsha de Silva, and Dr Anila Dias Bandaranaike, a former assistant governor of the Central Bank.

In a desperate bid to boost reserves, Sri Lanka went for a currency swap of US$200 million with Bangladesh, once a struggling new nation in South Asia. Prudent economic policies and management, and national interest, brought Bangladesh to its current flourishing status.

When the currency swap was announced, one Sri Lankan wag remarked that it would have made more sense if Sri Lanka had swapped its advisors for those from Bangladesh, and the swap should be permanent to protect the country’s self-respect

Only a country that has lost its political sense and perceptiveness, or has abandoned all concern for its struggling people, could seek government sanction to import nearly 300 vehicles costing Rs 3.7 billion for its 225 parliamentarians and unnamed others, in the midst of a severe foreign currency crisis, when begging and borrowing seem the only options.

What is even worse, Sri Lanka’s premier state bank was ordered to open letters of credit one month or so before cabinet approval had been sought. Whoever ordered this remains unknown to the public at the time of writing.

Critics of the government say it is fast losing its one-time popularity as ill-considered and sudden policy decisions are heaped on existing economic and health problems, such as the snap decision to ban chemical fertiliser and pesticides, so essential right now for agriculture and export crops such as tea.

Scant wonder the government is being assailed by even close associates of the Rajapaksa family. One such is the head of the Catholic Church, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who, in a strongly critical statement recently said that ‘even nature seemed to be turning against the rulers’.

Meanwhile, western nations taking a cue from the UN Human Rights Council’s highly critical resolution on Sri Lanka last March appear to be tightening the noose.

At the end of June, the European Parliament moved a resolution, with almost 90 per cent voting for it, urging the EU authorities to consider suspending the Generalised System of Preference (GSP Plus) trade concessions to Sri Lanka, which would be a serious blow to exports.

Later the Core Group of Western nations that sponsored the UNHRC resolution issued a statement condemning Sri Lanka’s human rights situation and new changes to the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Bleak times lie ahead.

Source: Asian Affairs Magazine

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London


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