When I called Jan Egeland to interview him for this piece, it was no surprise to me to hear that he was busy pounding on the door of Darfur, trying desperately to get in and see firsthand what his agency calls the site of the world's gravest humanitarian crisis. This time, Egeland, 48, wasn't allowed to enter, but of course he will keep trying. After all, shortly after his appointment as United Nations under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator in 2003, it was Egeland who relentlessly brought the situation in Darfur, where 180,000 have died and 2 million have been displaced, to the world's attention.
When he was busy organizing a chapter for Amnesty International at age 15 in his native Norway, he probably had no idea that he would one day be called on to be the world's conscience, but that is exactly how his job title should read. To be sure, it isn't an easy job. He entered the glaring and unforgiving international spotlight at the end of 2004 when he berated countries, including the U.S., for being stingy after a tepid response of $15 million in aid to the tsunami-devastated regions. For his part, he clarifies that he singled out no particular country but wondered out loud if the entire world should be giving more in foreign aid. And whether it was because of Egeland or not, the world did start doing more, including an additional $350 million in aid from the U.S. It is probable he will still be described as a pesky European who is more than slightly anti-American, but I have a feeling Jan Egeland doesn't worry too much about things like that. He is too busy visiting the worst places on earth, like earthquake-shaken Pakistan, war-torn eastern Congo or flooded Guyana. You will surely hear his voice when our conscience needs a little reminder.
Gupta is a neurosurgeon and a TIME medical columnist