International Crisis Response: In Conversation with IOM Candidate Ken Isaacs

Ken Isaacs is not one to study the effects of conflict and disaster from afar.  Instead, he has developed a reputation for going into hard-to-reach and often dangerous areas to save lives and alleviate suffering.  Isaacs is the United States’ candidate for the position of Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which will be decided at a special IOM election on June 29, 2018.  He currently serves as the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for Samaritan’s Purse, where he and a staff of over 4,000 national and expatriate staff implement approximately $500 million annually in emergency assistance and development services in more than 130 countries, including programs focused on safe migration and the prevention of human trafficking. 

Isaacs was on the ground during the Bosnian war, the Rwandan genocide, and the conflicts in Sudan and now South Sudan. He has led efforts to assist refugees fleeing the Syrian war and has designed and implemented emergency relief programs in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Honduras, El Salvador, Kosovo, Turkey, Afghanistan, Haiti, Japan, and the Philippines.  In 2004-05, Isaacs served as the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance where he led the U.S. government’s response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005 Pakistan earthquake in addition to humanitarian relief efforts in Darfur, southern Sudan, Niger and Ethiopia.  Upon returning to Samaritan’s Purse, he led the organization’s response to deadly earthquakes in Nepal and was instrumental in establishing an emergency field hospital on the outskirts of Mosul as Iraqi Security Forces fought to regain control of the city.  He has worked with UN agencies, armed actors and governments to ensure the safe passage of people in dozens of countries including Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Albania, Iraq and Greece.

Isaacs just returned from Bangladesh where he and his team opened a Diphtheria Treatment Center for Rohingya refugees in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. They also established a Rohingya Care Unit in a local hospital and increased the capacity of the hospital with additional personnel and equipment in order to provide this vulnerable displaced people group with surgical care that is not available in the camps. 

The following conversation with Isaacs, interspersed with observations by friends who have witnessed his work, provides insight into the challenges facing so many people around the world who grapple with the effects of globalization, natural disasters, conflict, mass atrocities and even genocide.  He sheds light on how the international community works to support those in need as well as the remarkable resilience, love and hope he has witnessed even in the most desperate situations.

How has your work changed over time? 

Back in the mid-80s, when I first started going to Africa, the humanitarian space was very different.  There were always mass migrations of people due to conflict, but the environment was safer. Today not only have conflicts become more complex, but the work of humanitarian providers is more dangerous as they frequently become a target for political and economic opportunity.

How do you decide where to go?

We go where the needs are the greatest.  This could be southern Sudan before the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Afghanistan, or Bosnia back in 1992 through 1994.  We’re currently working in Congo, and even in 1994, I negotiated access into Rwanda where Samaritan’s Purse worked until 1999.  We were one of only three organizations in the country during the genocide.  We try to respond to all major disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake in Japan in 2011 and more recently, the hurricanes in the Caribbean.  In addition, we have a significant focus on combating and preventing smuggling and human trafficking in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries in Asia through education and prevention programs.  We have found that helping communities understand the risks plus creating opportunities for access to financial resources through vocational training and income generating opportunities helps protect those who are most vulnerable. 

“I was just with Ken two weeks ago and can testify that this man will do anything or go anywhere to help people in distress.  I live in a very remote part of the world inhabited exclusively by Africans and a Muslim majority.  Ken and his team have been the only ones to provide any degree of humanitarian food aid to this beleaguered population - and he's not doing it solely from a perch in New York or Geneva but comes here on the ground to see for himself.”   - Dr. Tom Catena, Medical Director, Mother of Mercy Hospital, Nuba Mountains, Sudan

What do you do when you get there - what is your process?

The process involves having the organizational capability to deploy to the field along with pre-positioned supplies located around the world in order to meet the humanitarian needs of a sudden onset situation as soon as possible.  This includes experienced and trained staff along with extensive logistics and supply chain management capable of supporting everything from emergency shelter distribution to the much more complex surgical field hospital support.  We use an incident command structure along with an essential field team structure that we call the disaster assistance response team, DART for short.

“I have known Ken through his work with Samaritan's Purse, predominantly in Africa and can testify to his commitment to provide much-needed humanitarian aid to all in need.  I have frequently written to commend the professionalism of Samaritan's Purse staff in their commitment to provide unconditional help regardless of religion, race, tribe, colour or any other potential criteria for discrimination.  I have the highest regard for Ken and the work of Samaritan's Purse.” -  The Baroness Cox, Member of the House of Lords and CEO Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust.

How do the UN and various NGOs interface with each other in disaster or conflict situations and what has been your role in the process?

The United Nations uses something called the cluster system to coordinate the different players on the ground.  One day all of the organizations that provide shelter will meet, the next day may be the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) organizations, the following day for camp management organizations, and so on.  The point is that those organizations working in the same sector are a cluster and they usually work under the oversight or coordination of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) or another international agency that has been identified as the cluster lead.

I believe that in times of disaster it is important to get an emergency life-saving response on the ground and to the people as quickly as possible. For example, in 1999 during the fighting between Serbia and Kosovo, 800,000+ people fled Kosovo to Albania as refugees. We deployed teams of people and established a refugee camp for about 25,000 people under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  We worked in coordination with all of the UN agencies involved, the local government officials, the national government officials and other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Even the Spanish military was there.  

Having open communication with all of the various players is vital for good coordination as is participating in the cluster meetings to make certain that everyone is aware of what all of the humanitarian actors are doing.  As we have grown, our capacity frequently outpaces that of other agencies, so we go the extra mile to keep the cluster informed of our activities.  We help all people equally—based solely on need.  When we are moving through an area, whether it is with emergency shelter or an array of non-food items, we want to get these things into the hands of the people that need them the most as quickly as possible. This requires good logistics, preparation and communication.

“In June of 2011, the government of Sudan launched a campaign of genocide against the Nuba people living in Southern Kordofan State. Thousands of ethnic Nuban people were slaughtered while the world did nothing. In July, I visited the region to gather testimony of atrocities committed by government forces. One of the first people I called after my trip was Ken Isaacs, and he encouraged me to present testimony to Congress, which I did in August. In the meantime, Ken, in his role at Samaritan’s Purse, put boots on the ground just south of the Nuba border and created a refugee camp at a place called Yida. Ken established a beachhead for the UNHCR and every other big NGO to set up operations and provide life-saving care to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Nuba conflict. This is just one example in one country where Ken made a real difference and saved countless lives.” - Bradford Phillips, Founder, Persecution Project Foundation

How would your colleagues in your field describe the work you do?

I think Samaritan’s Purse has developed a reputation for going into hard areas very quickly with relevant and cost-effective relief.  We are known for negotiating our way into complex areas, which requires official diplomatic communications into various government ministries of the host government.  We maintain offices around the globe, so we are able to think strategically about which embassies are the best to seek permission to enter a country and gain the necessary access to reach endangered people.  We believe the quality of our work is extremely important, and by quality, we mean not only the goods delivered, but the honor, the dignity and the care that we provide to every person that we help.  We have never made any consideration based on religion, race, creed, or politics. We believe that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

“I've known Ken for more than 15 years, and in that period, I've utterly disagreed with him on politics and utterly admired his humanitarianism. He has been tireless in fighting for oppressed and desperate people of every faith and complexion, from Sudan to Iraq, Liberia to Bangladesh. Far from being an ideologue in his humanitarian work, Ken is a supreme pragmatist in his work to save lives, willing to work with anyone--even liberal New York Times columnists--to get the job done. And his nonstop travel and networks around the world also give him a good sixth sense about crises just beginning to emerge. In the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, he was way ahead of governments in understanding that there was a desperate need for more resources, and he was one of the whistleblowers who helped galvanize necessary attention even as the World Health Organization was asleep at the wheel. Likewise, there is no place more difficult to work than South Sudan, a nightmare of risk and logistics, yet Ken has overseen a huge presence there in areas where government has pretty much collapsed. And his passion to get the job done even in impossible places, while keeping his staff safe, has left me awed. So I flinch at some of Ken's political views, but I deeply admire his determination to make life better for forgotten people around the globe.” – Nick Kristof

What is the worst situation that you’ve seen and how did you deal with it?

The worst situation that I have seen is probably a tie between the war in Bosnia where I spent many months from the fall of 1992 through the end of 1995. In 1993 alone, I spent seven months in Bosnia. We were taking relief supplies into places like Mostar, Sarajevo and Tuzla where the fighting was very heavy, and there were a lot of casualties. I made lifelong friends among the Bosnian people and we helped a number of Bosnians come to the US as refugees for extensive and complicated medical treatments.

Then on April 6, 1994, the genocide in Rwanda started. I entered Rwanda from the north on May 6 and stayed there through August when we were able to go into Kigali. There were so many hundreds of thousands of displaced people fleeing for their lives and many fleeing from their crimes. I have never seen such brutal and horrendous behavior, and everyone there was deeply affected by it. I identified the central hospital of Kigali as an essential institution that needed to be re-opened to help the newly forming Ministry of Health get on its feet and provide healthcare for thousands of Rwandans as they began returning to the country. Doctors and nurses were brought in but first we attended to the remains of those who had been massacred at the hospital. The Rwandan army gave Samaritan’s Purse a deserted home for its headquarters in Kigali, but first we had to dig a mass grave in the front yard for the 21 people who had been killed at the doorsteps of the house. I saw so much bravery through the pain and brokenness of the survivors. I heard incredible first-person stories of individuals who were spared while their loved ones were struck down next to them.  The combination of what I was exposed to during the war in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda was difficult and took me about seven years to deal with fully.

How have you seen people cope and come together in these types of situations?

War and disaster do an amazing thing to societies. War can cause division, but it can also bring about a cohesion among people from differing backgrounds based on survival and communal suffering. Too often, these groups are formed around some kind of sectoral or ethnic lines that have been a point of violence against other groups, such as in Bosnia when the Serbs were fighting the Bosnian Muslims and sometimes the Croatians were allied with the Bosnian Muslims and sometimes they weren’t. It was always a dicey situation. I work with the most vulnerable victims, which in the case of Bosnia, was the Muslim population, which was under constant attack by artillery, mortar and snipers.  

War is horrible. It always has been, and it always will be. From the time that I lived in Ethiopia during two simultaneous conflicts back in the 80’s up to today where there is fighting in South Sudan and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, I have seen firsthand the traumatizing effects of war on innocent people.  I care deeply about the condition of all people, and my commitment to creating a safe and healthy space for people who have suffered through conflict has only intensified in my decades of working in these areas.

The fighting in Mosul resulted in some of the most brutal and tragic injuries against women and children caught in the crossfire that I have ever seen. It was unimaginable. We set up what is called a level two emergency field hospital that contained two operating rooms and four intensive care units. It was only 11 miles from Mosul during the heaviest part of the conflict. The facility was mobilized to accommodate very complex surgeries. The security that we put around the tent hospital to stop car bombs and suicide attacks was very significant. We treated women and children as well as Iraqi security forces and ISIS fighters. They all received the same level of excellent care and compassion, and in the nine months we were there, we had over 4,000 patients and performed more than 1,700 surgeries. Thousands of lives were saved because we had over 350 dedicated medical personnel who served there. Many of them would serve for a month, return home for a month, and then come back and serve again. All of them were deeply moved by the pain they saw.

What is common regardless of the location?

The thing that is common regardless of location is to go where the needs are and not necessarily where we have easy access.  This often means putting yourself and your staff at certain levels of risk and even danger. Another common factor is to treat everybody on all sides of the conflict without regard for anything other than the fact that they need help and assistance to survive and recover from the circumstances that caused them to migrate, that is to flee or move.  Whether they are refugees pouring into areas where we have worked for three years or if they are newly and forcibly displaced, like Rohingya who now live in camps in Bangladesh, I believe that all people are made in the image of God and that all life is valuable and should be preserved.

“Over two decades ago, I asked Ken to advise us on Sudan as I was planning a trip there for the first CODEL to the front lines of that war-ravaged country (after the “no fly” restriction was lifted), to be led by then-Senator Brownback, my boss.  It was a rough, rough thing to plan and everyone was telling us not to do it.  But after Ken talked with me, I knew we could do it.  Ken was known for both his commitment to and deep knowledge of the Sudan.  He had equal parts wisdom and intrepitude and I trusted him implicitly.  Thanks, in part to him, we took the trip which turned out to be a major tipping point for our advocacy exposing slavery in the Sudan.  There’s something to be said for courageous advisors, which he proved to be.” - Sharon Payt, J.D., Executive Director, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative

 “I crossed paths with Ken Isaacs at least twice when I was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.  In both occasions, Ken showed us humanity at its best: I met a passionate, committed, bold and honest man. Indeed, when it comes to the plight and misery of the victims of genocide and oppressed peoples of the two Sudans, Ken is straight talker, honest, uncompromising and undiplomatic.  I admire his affinity and deep knowledge about the greater Sudan and its peoples.  Friends on the ground in Sudan, who have interacted with Ken, appreciate his devotion and commitment to humanity and humanitarianism.” - Ahmed H Adam, Research Associate, School of Law, SOAS University of London

What worries you the most?

Multiple large scale disasters around the world worry me the most. Today there are over 22 million refugees in the world, an estimated 40 million displaced due to fighting and insecurity, and over 200 million migrants.  Conflict seems to be growing, not shrinking, and people are being driven out of their countries in a way that is creating instability in entire regions of the world.  Europe was rocked politically by the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers who had little option but to try for a better life in Europe. Thousands of these precious souls died trying to cross the sea in flimsy rubber rafts. Many put themselves in the dangerous hands of human smugglers. In northern Africa, we are seeing an increase in slavery as people who are fleeing oppression, violence, and extreme poverty are falling victim to traffickers.  

Conflict is the reason behind most displacement, and there needs to be a more robust response from the international community to bring political resolutions to areas embroiled in violence. In many ways, the world seems more dangerous now than it ever has been. Yet the work to bring political solutions seems to sputter along. This puts a heavier burden on humanitarian actors in these areas and politicizes aid to the world’s most desperate people.

What is most encouraging?

The heart and the generosity of people around the world are enormous. In every disaster area I’ve seen - whether the destruction was from a hurricane, a tornado, war, an earthquake or famine - even those who are suffering want to help their neighbors. The spirit of love for family and community grows in times of suffering, and it is that spirit that I see in people that gives me hope.