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International Humanitarian Speaks at UW-RF

NOV. 12, 2004--An international humanitarian who has worked in Africa and Asia for more than 25 years says that preoccupation with a "culture of death" hampers global humanitarian progress.

"There are enough resources, know-how and capacity to eliminate some of the root causes of human suffering," said Sigurd Hanson, country director of World Vision-Pakistan and a 1975 graduate of UW-River Falls. Hansen, who is the University’s Distinguished Alumnus, said in his recent appearance, "Ironically we lack the will to do so. We seem to put our faith in weapons to solve problems … that is a tragic characteristic of our global world."

Hanson, an Onalaska, Wis., native, compared the expenditures of a "culture of death" with expenditures needed to eliminate poverty and provide food, education, clean water and health care for all. "Countries spend $1.6 trillion a year on arms, illegal drugs and advertisements," said Hanson. "It would cost just $45 billion a year to bring a lot of life to many."

"It requires an agreement on values—common core values," he said. "To fight for security, prosperity and justice is predicated on an acknowledgement of interdependence. It requires political narrative, serious dialog. It requires courage and leadership, not bullying. An understanding of security means offering hope and opportunity to the destitute of this world. The lesson for the 21st century is that the fight for security, prosperity and justice can no longer be won on any one nation's ground."

Hanson's presentation, "Our World…Global Trends and Challenges: The Role of Humanitarian Assistance," attracted a crowd of several hundred to North Hall Auditorium.

He outlined other factors driving today's world. People have changed, and they understand more about why their world is as it is. They are also less passive yet they feel they have little effect on economic, political and social factors that affect daily life.

Globalization of economies, technology and communications is a factor, and anti-globalization is growing, especially in Europe and the developing world, he said. Knowledge economies are emerging, and education, technology and communication are the determinants of who participates and who does not.

Hanson also said that there is a resurgence of interest in spiritual things while the belief in inevitable human progress is waning. There is an increase in the power and hostility of fundamentalist religions from Christianity to Islam, and while globalization draws people together, ethnic and religious identity root people locally, he said.

"My God is a God of the living," said Hanson in a special commemorative book on his career published by UW-RF when he received the 2003 Distinguished Alumnus Award. "I know my God and my God knows me. I believe that to be the best gift. It is a realization—for me as a Christian—that I can have and reflect in my personal life."

Several trends facing contemporary humanity include the gap between the rich and poor, increasing conflicts and internal violence, displaced people, economic power centers, and shifting patterns of governance, continued Hanson.

Environmental limitations persist, and in many cases are getting worse, said Hanson. The food supply is produced through an unsustainable use of water, and falling water tables, shrinking cropland per person and collapsing fisheries threaten the world's need for food. Moreover, the world's most populous countries, China and India, are facing the largest future water deficits.

Hanson also offered information on the status of women, children, poor people, the health divide, current and emerging pandemics, emergency relief efforts and promotion of international justice.

"It is clear to me that since my time at River Falls this world is ripe with social injustice and needs each and every one of us to participate," said Hanson. "It is worth spending time trying to improve the human condition. There is some contribution that each and every one of us can make. Every human has the gift to care, to be compassionate, and to listen."

His organization had to vacate Iraq in October, and Hanson noted that security—rather than the relief mission—is now a main management concerns in all of his years of humanitarian relief. "The struggle is, I think, of what is the role of these coalitions of military institutions as they get into humanitarian roles," said Hanson. "That can be a healthy challenge."

Hanson said he can no longer safety travel in Afghanistan either. He has worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan since 1998, moving between the two countries during the period of Taliban rule, the Afghan War and the post-war period. World Vision worked with Afghan agencies and Taliban authorities to feed more than 1 million starving people during that period.

"Where you have extremism you have information that gets distorted," he said. "You didn't hear things like more girls were educated [than before] during the Taliban rule. Also during the Taliban the [illegal] drug scene was not operating; now it's going strong. You have two worlds, what you think is going on and then a mafia-like underworld that fuels conflict with drugs, arms and pornography."

Hanson notes that humanitarian agencies challenge the status quo. "Agencies like ours intervene and do something with the positive in the culture and try to get rid of the negative culture. We know what works to empower the people—to teach a person to fish."

World Vision-Pakistan is a $15 million democracy program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and part of World Vision International, a Christian relief and development organization working to promote the well being of all people - especially children. Established in 1950 to care for orphans in Asia, World Vision offered material, emotional, social and spiritual support to 100 million people in 99 countries in 2003. World Vision has grown to embrace the larger issues of community development and advocacy for the poor in its mission to help children and their families build sustainable futures.

Despite immense global challenges, Hanson remains an optimist. "The main point is … to never give up. It's natural to feel powerless. I feel powerless most of the time. But it does not stop me. … You just keep hammering away, fighting for what is right, doing good, and through one activity at a time you break down the resistance," he said to May 2004 graduating class at UW-River Falls. "There is no point to pessimism. I really believe that you have to fight the good fight."

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Last updated: Tuesday, 22-Jun-2010 16:21:17 Central Daylight Time

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