Joel Charny has been a humanitarian aid worker for 40 years — but one of the first valuable lessons he learned about the job was as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s.
At 21, he was assigned to work as a sixth grade English teacher in a remote part of the Central African Republic. The students didn’t have textbooks. Some kids had to walk 5 miles to school and back. And many did their homework under a streetlamp because there was no electricity at home.
“The devotion those kids had to learning was absolutely phenomenal. You don’t leave that and say, ‘I’m so great, look at all the amazing things I did.’ You come away with empathy and respect for people.”
That empathy and respect for others, says Charny, has stayed with him throughout his career working for relief groups such as Refugees International and Oxfam in countries like Cambodia, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Syria. In June, he retired from his job as the U.S. executive director of Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the world’s largest aid organizations.
Charny, 67, reflects on his decades in humanitarianism — and explains why people shouldn’t treat aid workers as if they wear haloes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do people react at parties when you tell them what your job is?
There is an assumption that humanitarians have a halo over them. There is a tendency to give us the benefit of the doubt, that what we’re doing is inherently good. That needs to be challenged.
If you get 10 humanitarians at a party, we’ll all be telling tales of things that have gone wrong. But when we face the public, we don’t dare reveal the real challenges we’re facing and the mistakes we make for fear of jeopardizing that up-front respect we get for being humanitarians.
Do you feel like you have a halo?
I don’t walk around thinking I have a halo but I do feel that people outside the sector put a halo around my work, whether I want it or not.
How did you get into humanitarianism in the first place?
I was raised in a liberal, Jewish household in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the 1960s, where caring about the state of the world was part of the ethos of my family and my friends. There’s a huge theme in Judaism of loving your neighbor as thyself and caring for other people. I was raised with the idea of tikkun olam, which means “repair the world” in Hebrew. If you are privileged, you should give back.
You retired in the middle of a pandemic. How do you think the crisis has affected humanitarian work?
Of course there was additional suffering that would not have taken place otherwise. But the pandemic proved to be way less of a hurdle than we expected. It was just one more complication in an already challenging environment.
There were periods when expatriate staff were unable to return to a work location, but many organizations found ways to minimize disruptions.
Many groups have been able to continue delivering food and medical supplies and other needs by mobilizing their local staff and enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols — masking up and social distancing when meeting with aid recipients.
Right. The pandemic’s been disruptive, but in some ways it’s not the No. 1 story.
What is the No. 1 story in areas where humanitarians work?
Conflict. Is the pandemic a factor in Ethiopia? Absolutely. But the main issue right now is the war in Tigray — the government linking up with Eritrea, attacking the Tigrayans and destroying the camps of Eritrean refugees.
How do you think Americans feel about the global refugee crisis now? Is there a lack of enough sympathy or response?
In the 1980s, there was some concern about Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees coming to the U.S. — but overall, there was a bipartisan welcoming of those people and the idea that America would provide a safe haven. But it’s become more difficult to make those arguments.
What [former President] Trump was able to accomplish over four years was a striking erosion in the thinking of the American people to care for those who are in distress — by demonizing refugees and immigrants and sending the message that foreigners are coming to threaten our security or take our jobs. It will be a massive task to build back empathy.
What are some of the biggest changes to the humanitarian aid sector since you started your job 40 years ago?
The sector is more professional. There are technical standards that guide our work. For example, you need to provide a certain amount of water per person to meet their bathing, drinking and cooking needs when you set up a refugee camp.
Another big change: There is a tendency now for boards — who have immense power — to judge the heads of organizations based solely on the increase in the budget rather than any objective assessment of what the organization is accomplishing. So as long as the arrow goes up, everything’s good. That kind of corporate mentality is a negative aspect that’s been inserted into the sector. Our true mission should always be to help vulnerable people.
How do you think the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is playing out?
Afghanistan was already facing severe humanitarian challenges, especially as the result of food insecurity due to drought. So the political turmoil comes on top of the struggle for survival and well-being for the bulk of the population.
Depending on how the Taliban handle the political transition, it is likely that Afghan civil society, which was trying to move the country forward, will be repressed, leading to a response from donor governments to reduce or cut aid altogether. [Aid groups] can still make a difference if funding is maintained. But the picture is grim.
What do you think of the celebrification of the aid industry? You’ve met the actors Angelina Jolie and Matt Dillon, for example, in your line of work.
I don’t see this as a big problem. If celebrities can bring attention to a problem or a cause, then that’s a good thing.
The danger is that the celebrity becomes the media story. It’s a hard line to draw. Angelina Jolie, for example, while perhaps easy to mock, really tries to make her interventions about the problem rather than about her presence.
If you could change one big thing about the industry, what would it be?
We need some kind of independent entity that’s able to cut through the public relations, cut through the halo effect and say what the problems are — like corruption or money being wasted — and what needs to be improved. In other words, a global ombudsperson or a better business bureau for the humanitarian sector.
I call this idea Relief Watch. It would have to be staffed by people who know the sector, but basically don’t want to have a career in the sector [any longer] because they would not be making too many friends. I’m waiting for someone to make that happen.
Sounds like you’d be the perfect candidate as a recent retiree.
Well, I’d love to do it. But I never had the guts because of the financial risks in terms of pulling something like that together.
What has helped you cope throughout these years of working in aid?
Humility and modesty. There’s a martyr complex in the humanitarian sector. The people who burn out are the ones who tend to feel like if they don’t work 15 hours a day today and tomorrow and next week and next month, someone is going to die.
You do everything you can within the boundaries of a working day, then you have dinner, you go to bed and you get up the next day and pick things up. If you do that consistently, you are going to make a difference — without doing harm to yourself or having delusions of grandeur.
I don’t think I ever fell into that trap, because I never felt like, because of me, thousands of people are going to live or die.