People in Need - 25 years of supporting humanitarian aid and development

People in Need in Syria, photo: archive of People in Need

It is now twenty-five years since the founding of the Czech charity People in Need, or Člověk v tísni, which operates in several dozen countries around the world providing humanitarian relief, supporting development projects, and educational and human rights programs. In a special program marking the anniversary I am joined in the studio by Jan Mrkvička, who is the head of the NGO’s development and humanitarian relief section.

Jan Mrkvička,  photo: Dominik Jůn
So let’s go all the way back to 1992. Obviously in the communist era everything was run by the state, and there was no concept of charity. So was it difficult to rebuild this concept in the Czech mindset?

“Frankly speaking, I was 12-years-old at that time. I have been with People in Need for 17 years, so I don’t remember those old times. But what I know from my colleagues and the founders of People in Need is that it was actually quite easy. There was a large demand in the society to do something. There were many enthusiastic young people trying to change their approaches and ways of doing things. And that was actually the very beginning of People in Need – just a group of volunteers, mostly young people, trying to do something on their own. Trying not to be a victim anymore, and not to feel like a victim anymore, but rather to do something for others.”

So how did the charity start? I understand that at first People in Need was associated with the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny, and also the public broadcaster Czech Television.

“At the very beginning, there were journalists involved in setting it up. And the initial idea was to not merely just report about crisis situations, but to also help at the same time. So it was a mixture of being a journalist and aid worker. Since then we changed and developed into a professional humanitarian organisation – but this aspect of the work, meaning a sense of obligation that we should report back, and we should pass on to the civil society and the Czech public and Europe what we are witnessing on a daily basis in crisis spots such as Syria, Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo – that remains our duty, or moral obligation. Because we realise that other people don’t have the ability to access such places. So this spirit of journalism is still there, but we completely changed the approach.”

Let’s examine what exactly People in Need does. Officially it is humanitarian relief, development projects and education, right? Is that how you would characterise how it is branched out?

Film festival Jeden svět,  photo: Martin Netočný / Jeden svět
“We have more branches than that. In the Czech Republic, we mainly work on social inclusion issues; supporting inclusive education. We organise a human rights film festival, for example. So there are a range of activities in the Czech Republic. And then abroad there are two parts – we have a human rights department and a relief and development department, which is my department. The human rights department is more like supporting people, for example trying to promote freedom of speech; more like working with individuals, whereas the relief and development department is helping victims of natural disasters and conflicts. That is one part. And the second part is development programmes, where we are trying to solve the problems of the poorest people in 22 countries worldwide at present.”

With regards to social inclusion and education in the Czech Republic, how does that work? How do you help Czechs?

“One part is educating young people and children. Because many kids don’t have the same opportunities at the start of their lives because of their family situations, a lack of interest from parents, or because of a tendency in Czech society to exclude such people from the very beginning.”

What people are you talking about? Do you mean Roma? Or poorer people in general?

“It isn’t only about Roma. It is about poorer people in general, but the Roma population would be an important part of that. So we are trying to equalise their chances at the outset. We do realise that this is a long-term issue, and is not anything that can be solved quickly. But we believe that these kind of investments will repay themselves in the future. Also we assist people struggling with major debt and are unable to escape the cycle of poverty. So we provide individual assistance to such people, offering advice for what they can do, and how they can...”

Not financial assistance...


So, a family is broke; there is a single mother with no husband around. The mother might call you up and you would suggest which state agency she should turn to – that kind of thing?

Photo: archive of People in Need
“Yes. We have a number of branches in the Czech Republic. They cover different aspects. It could be job-seeking assistance, or debt relief assistance, or other kinds of help. But it is mainly about information on the one hand, and on the other we are trying to identify the structural problems we have in our society, for example with debts, and then lobbying against people who are misusing the system from both sides.”

Presently People in Need is operating in around 28 countries...

“All of People in Need, yes. In my department it is 22.”

Let’s examine the international efforts of your charity. What were some of the earliest foreign countries where People in Need began to act in the 1990s?

“The biggest operations from this initial period were in Bosnia and in Chechnya. Then, in terms of the ‘second generation’ – which is my generation – we have a strong effort in Afghanistan, where we started to work in 2001 and 2002 when we set up a permanent presence. And then let’s say the ‘third generation’ was mainly focused on development programmes in a number of African countries. We are in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Angola. And then we also operate in Asian countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.”

What kind of work do you undertake in these countries? Is it food aid, for example in a country like Angola?

People in Need in Syria,  photo: archive of People in Need
“Definitely not. Food aid is for Syria. Not that much anymore in Ukraine – we still do some there, but it is very limited and targeted to the most vulnerable people. In Syria it is more general because there is still an ongoing war. In Iraq, it is the same case, because fighting is ongoing. But in the countries which are suffering from long-term poverty, then food aid won’t solve things. So we are trying, for example, to introduce new agricultural techniques to help farmers cope with climate change; introducing new species of crops to better cope with a lack of water, and trying to solve problems on a more permanent basis.

“In many aspects of our work we cooperate closely with local governments. So, for example, if we are trying to help people get access to safe water in Ethiopia, then is it not only about drilling wells, but also about linking or building capacities for local people so that they understand what it means, how to take care of wells, and to connect them with the local government to establish communications so that people know what to expect from authorities and so that governments can know about specific problems in the field. All of our approaches seek in a limited time-frame to help local people to solve their own problems. No development project should take longer than five, or maybe in some cases seven years. Not longer. And all of our strategies are based on identifying structural problems and trying to assist in solving them.”

How do you decide how to best make use of your limited resources? Obviously you can’t be everywhere and help everyone. How do you decide how many people to send somewhere?

“The main principle is demand from local people. We don’t want to be coming to a country like Ethiopia and telling them that: we know you have problems and we know how to help you, so listen to us because we are clever people from Europe. That is not the way we operate. Operations are always based on a longer-term presence, and an initial demand from the local people. Secondly, we are trying to work in local regions and sectors where we can offer a specific added value as People in Need. We focus on certain sectors and methodologies and approaches. Quite often we undertake efforts in a country in response to a natural disaster – for example that is how we started in Nepal or the Philippines, and in Afghanistan we began as a result of the war. And then we feel that this phase of pure humanitarian aid should end, because people should recover and find a means to begin to work again and so on. But we do realise that there are certain structural problems with which people may need assistance. So we progressively transform our humanitarian programmes into development programmes. And that offers new ways to enter different regions and locations.

“Another important aspect is that all of our work is based around concrete projects. And we are asking for specific money from big international donors. We have a certain amount of funds from small donors in the Czech Republic...”

Let me ask about that – tell me where your organisation derives its funding.

Real Gift campaign run for the People in Need
“Around 15 percent is from small donations, mainly from people in the Czech Republic. That provides us with stability and the opportunity to respond immediately in the event of a crisis somewhere. We have friends – several thousand members who regularly donate ten or twenty dollars per month. And this helps to fund our quick response budget. A second source of funding for development programmes is real aid and real gift collections – again people donate to us on a regular basis.”

I’ve never seen People in Need staff in the streets shaking a collection box...

“No. We don’t collect money on the street. Because we feel it is not transparent enough. We used to have people in the streets trying to explain to passers-by about our work, and then also asking them if they might be interested in sending us money via bank transfers. But, no, we don’t collect money on the streets. We feel that people don’t trust this. I don’t trust people collecting money in the streets because we know that while some of them are legitimate, others are fake collections. At the same time, we really want our donors – even if it is someone giving us 100 Czech crowns – to understand what we do, why we do it, and to have access to our annual reports, to our web pages, and to really know what our aid efforts are all about. We don’t want to just collect money and do whatever with it.

“Coming back to the sources of the funding: the aforementioned is just one part. The majority comes from projects. So, for example we are in Syria. The British, German, or Czech governments all want to help people in Syria in some way. So we submit a project proposal in quite a large competition involving many other international agencies of our kind – different kinds of actors are involved in this sector. And if our project is found to be potentially the most effective and efficient then we will get the funding. And we have to report back to the donor what we did with the money in a very detailed way.”

That all sounds quite similar to a corporate bidding system.

“It is.”

People in Need,  photo: archive of People in Need
So you are basically saying: we can do it better than Oxfam because we have so and so people and skills...

“Exactly. And despite the fact that we are there to help, many people are quite surprised that we have to compete. And a lot of energy is consumed by unsuccessful proposals. Presently we have a 40 percent success rate, which is not that bad. I would say that even in comparison with Oxfam, for example, we are not in a bad place with regards to our success rate. But it is a competition, and I think this is healthy because good intentions alone are not a guarantee of good work. And our work is special. It is very difficult and we work in very unstable environments. But they are projects like any other. And projects must be designed properly and must be evaluated and all the outcomes should be measured and reported. So we really have to prove that we achieved something. It isn’t just about giving people something and feeling good about it.”

Do you have a permanent number of staff members? And then do you also take on volunteers or paid staff for specific projects?

“The majority of work is managed by paid staff. But it is important to understand that Czechs or ex-pats from (relevant) countries represent 8-9 percent of the staff. The majority of staff are local nationals (in the places we operate). And the average salary would be 10-15,000 Czech crowns...”

A relatively low amount.

“Of course in such places salaries are lower and so are prices. Most of the work is managed by local people. That is because of language issues, developing trust, and because we want them to feel that they are helping their people. Beneficiaries should not feel that aid is something artificial, but rather that it is directly benefiting their communities. But top management are ex-pats and not Czechs anymore. We have 30 percent Czechs and then all the nationalities – Brits, Americans, French, Germans, people from Peru, people from all over the world. We work as an international organisation, so we work across the global job market.”

When you are working in a place like Syria – a war zone – or Afghanistan, how do you ensure the safety of your workers?

People in Need in Afghanistan,  photo: archive of People in Need
“That is definitely one of the priorities of People in Need. You may know that two years ago we had a critical incident in Afghanistan when nine of our employees were killed in the Zari district of Balkh province. Since that we once again invested a huge effort into strengthening all the existing security procedures. How is this done? It is about reporting systems, it’s about fences in countries like Afghanistan – you need to have solid walls and barbed wires in place just as protection. But the main principle of ensuring our security – and this might sound quite weak – is fostering the acceptance of the local people. We really have to be sure that local people understand why we are there; that we are accepted, that we are not perceived to be doing anything against them and that we are really helping them. That is 90 percent of our security. And we know that they will tell us is something suspicious is happening.

“Of course, that alone is not enough. If we are in the capital Kabul, for example, then you really can’t hope for acceptance of the local people, because they don’t know us. Or they know us at certain ministries but the normal population doesn’t. And, for example, there is a risk of kidnapping. So it is about not using the same roads and changing the patterns of how you move. It is also about having, for example, a guest house and office in the same compound so that we are not travelling excessively and exposing ourselves to risk. It is about low visibility. When I started working in this sector fifteen years ago we had a very high visibility in all the countries in which we operated. White cars with flags showing that we are aid workers. Now in many countries it is the complete opposite.”

Because you would be a target.

Photo: archive of People in Need
“Yes. Now you would be targeted so we are trying to utilise modest ways of living and transportation so as to not be too visible. Of course in certain countries the element of risk is still there. It is another aspect about the work which people should be aware of – the risk levels in a particular environment.”

Let’s shift to another area, which is equally tricky, but in a somewhat different way. The human rights campaigning undertaken by People in Need – I believe you started off in Cuba. It was a sort of pet project for many Czechs in the post-communist era, you might say. To help a similarly small country to shake-off the shackles of tyranny..? How exactly did People in Need’s human right campaigning develop?

“You are right. Initially, the motivation was to try to do for others the same as other people had done for us during the communist times. This has developed, but in many countries it is still the same. Some countries are progressively changing so we are trying to find the best ways how to work there. But the main principle is to not impose anything, but rather to support the people who are sharing the very basic human values, including a desire for freedom and freedom of speech. So it is not political but rather supporting people who share the same values and who are suffering from living in authoritarian regimes.”

Let’s take an example of a country whose government probably does not want you, or does not welcome you, or does not agree with your characterisation of it – by that I mean Russia under Vladimir Putin. You’ve been characterised as potential spies, agitators, and they are not very friendly anymore towards foreign NGOs. So how do you go about defending yourselves against such accusations and also actually carrying out work in a country in which you are not welcome?

“It is important to realise that these anti-civil society tendencies are growing stronger in many countries. Russia is, of course, one of the first examples in this regard. But the situation is quite similar in many countries where we work. And you can feel that things are changing because these authoritarian regimes are simply afraid of a civil society; of a local civil society. And they think that international NGOs are simply supporting local civil society – which is true. So this is happening in a number of countries.

People in Need in Donetsk,  photo: archive of People in Need
“In some countries it is kind of a game with the regimes. We still have to register, to report on what we do. But we don’t have any political agenda. We help people, and the principles are democratic – when we discuss with people if they need a well or an irrigation system, then we of course are not imposing anything. We are holding discussions with the people, and all our work is based on democratic principles. As I said, it is often a game with these regimes if they will accept us or not. In some countries we simply had to close down, for example when we were responding to the earthquake in Bam, Iran, we set up operations there. 30,000 people died in one city, so it was huge. I was there personally. At the very beginning the government said it was OK and we were welcomed there. But after a year they started pushing us out of the country.

“There are some countries in which we support civil society but we don’t operate there legally, so that means we are not registered and don’t have a permanent presence.”

You mentioned Iran. That is a case where being ‘little old Czech Republic’ might be easier to get into a country like Iran than being an American charity or a British charity. Are there cases where People in Need being Czech helps?

“You then have the question of what to do in Iran. In that case I believe that the civil society is quite strong. So we wouldn’t be there as a relief agency. It is again more about supporting people, but we don’t operate in Iran. What you mentioned is very true and helps us a lot with our work, for example to establish our presence in Ukraine in wartime.”

Because People in Need is delivering supplies to the separatist areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, right?

Photo: Roman Lunin/People in Need
“We have been helping both sides in the conflict since the very start. You could say it is a kind of paradox because our values could be seen as being in contradiction with the values of today’s Russia. And we were the only NGO operating on this side of the conflict, and this was because the big American NGOs lacked an understanding of the local context and culture – they just came and said: ‘we are an international organisation and there is need as a result of war and we are going to help you.’ And the local authorities were very suspicious about what might happen, and they simply forbade them from working there. But that wasn’t the case with People in Need – we work there and are still working in Luhansk region. We are registered there and we cooperate and report what we do. This is thanks to the fact that our work is purely humanitarian and they do realise that aid is needed for the most vulnerable people and they know what we do.”

Wasn’t there a problem a few months ago of your certification suddenly being withdrawn?

“The second part (of our operations) is Donetsk and the DNR [the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, a self-proclaimed state in the Donetsk Oblast]. We cannot work there. There are two separatist areas, and in one we were working as the only international NGO, and our registration was not prolonged. There was no specific reason given for this, although there was quite a long campaign in the Russian media against us saying that we are spies and so on. So, without explanation, they simply refused to extend or renew our registration. But we still operate in the other separatist area of Ukraine. We believe the non-renewal was more of a political agenda issue than one based on any genuine issues – maybe some power game in the upper levels of the DNR.”

How do you balance humanitarian relief and pro human rights campaigning when perhaps pushing too much on one may limit your ability to do the other?

People in Need in Myanmar,  photo: archive of People in Need
“This is a major issue in some countries. For example in Myanmar. Our focus used to be purely on human rights. But then with the changes in society and politics we decided to set up a permanent presence there. As to what we do – we support civil society; we help local people to establish certain procedures and a knowledge and understanding of human rights; and for citizens to be an active part of the society and defend their rights.

“We are continuing with this approach, but we know that being there, having a presence and registration in Myanmar, means being careful and keeping a close eye on political developments there. And we also need to be ready to withdraw if the space for civil society shrinks too much. So it is a discussion about which approach is better and more relevant in different places. Sometimes the discussions are quite difficult, but we always strive to find the best and most relevant approach. And also an approach where People in Need can bring added value. We don’t want to just be one of the millions doing the same thing. We are always looking to find which is the best way, and I would say that we are still quite a big NGO – we have grown fast in recent years – but we are still able to be flexible and open. So I believe that we are able to react in a changing environment.”