30 years of People In Need: a grassroots story

Šimon Pánek

People in Need is one of Czechia’s most well-known NGOs, providing humanitarian relief to crisis-affected regions and implementing long-term development projects and educational and human rights programmes around the world. It has been 30 years since it adopted its current name on 21 March 1994, so on the occasion, I spoke to the non-profit’s founder and director, Šimon Pánek, to find out about its beginnings and how it got its name.

It’s been 30 years since Člověk v tísni (People in Need) got its name, but the organisation has been around a couple of years longer than that. Could you tell us briefly about its very beginnings and how you got started?

Šimon Pánek | Photo: Czech Television

“Soon after communism fell, conflicts popped up like mushrooms in many of the multi-ethnic former communist countries. Because communism, besides everything else, pretended that we have a new, stronger, better identity – the socialist or communist identity – not Czech or Slovak, or Croat or Bosnian, or Russian or Chechen. So unfortunately, along with newfound freedom, conflicts appeared.

“And we, being Czech journalists, student leaders and activists, were shocked by the fact that wars were starting just 10 or 12 hours’ drive from Prague, so we wanted to do something. In the beginning, it was a pure act of civil society – a bunch of activists and volunteers fundraising, buying food, and rushing down to conflict zones.”

Were you already under the auspices of Lidové Noviny at that time?

People in Need in Ukraine | Photo: Petr Štefan,  People In Need

“The roots go even further back into communism because I was one of the people who organised the public collection and aid shipments for Armenia in 1988, still during communism, so it didn’t come completely out of the blue.

“But yes, the beginning was connected with the Lidové Noviny daily newspaper, which kindly offered us space to work and advised us on how to communicate with the public about why we were asking for money, what we would do with the money, and how we would get the aid to the people who need it, which was very helpful.”

Fast forward a couple of years, you changed your name from 'Nadace Lidové Noviny' to 'Člověk v tísni'. What motivated that change of name and how did you come up with it?

Photo: People In Need

“The main motivation was joining forces with Czech Television, which is a public TV station. We had already organised a very successful fundraising campaign run by Czech Television through short spots in 1993. It was called SOS Sarajevo, and people were queuing up to donate aid to Sarajevo.

“Soon after, some people came up with the idea to establish a charity together with Czech Television, to be more effective, collect more money and have more impact. It was of course very tempting, so we decided to do so.”

Was it Czech Television’s idea to call it Člověk v tísni? Who came up with the name and how?

Photo: People In Need

“I think the name came from a few friends and journalists who were around, and it was directly inspired by the Austrian nationwide campaign ‘Nachbar in Not’ which means ‘Neighbour in Need’, a campaign run by Austrian charities along with Austrian public TV to collect aid for the former Yugoslavia. So it was really inspired by that, and we just slightly changed the name and broadened it to ‘People in Need’ instead of ‘Neighbour in Need’.

What about the English translation ‘People in Need’? Was that decided at the same time or did that come later?

“As far as I remember, the English name came together with the Czech name, because we were already active internationally at that time. We weren’t funded by the UN or the EU or even the Czech government – all People in Need’s funding for the first few years was solely raised by the Czech public.

Photo: Daniela Honigmann,  Radio Prague International

“But we were active internationally so it was important to have an international name. The direct translation ‘Human Being in Need’ sounded a bit strange, so during this process of sitting around the table and brainstorming, someone came up with the idea, ‘Why not “People In Need”?’ And it was immediately adopted.”