Czechia has changed, we behave like a country with ideals, says Šimon Pánek. But he would never force anyone to help others

Published: May 16, 2022 Reading time: 18 minutes
Šimon Pánek gives an interview with Marianna Stránská of Skautský Institut in Staroměstské Náměstí for the series NEBÁT SE (DON'T BE AFRAID)
© People in Need

“Humanitarian aid is vital during times when people are unable to support themselves, as it gives them hope for the future,” says Šimon Pánek, director of People in Need and the first guest in Skautsky institut's new series NEBÁT SE (DON’T BE AFRAID). Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine, two years of the Covid pandemic and villages razed to the ground after the tornado in South Moravia all show how important this kind of aid really is. But we must continue to ask ourselves: how can we help people effectively and prevent burnout? And how are current crises changing our perception of the world and of ourselves?”

Humanitarian aid can take many forms, with many different representations and definitions. You’ve been in the humanitarian aid sector for three decades; how would you define it?

Humanitarian aid saves people’s lives, or at least their health, it helps people to overcome the difficulties they are dealing with and, if possible, it respects their dignity, and gives them hope for the future. Usually, this is material help, it may be temporary accommodation. It is needed in a time of crisis when people are unable to help themselves, such as the refugees from Ukraine now. Although many of them have been trying to solve it themselves since day one, it is the help provided by people who live somewhere safe, calm and do not want to just gawk at the crisis that really makes a difference. These people can get together, raise money, send in experts, planes and rescuers — and really provide humanitarian aid.

In one of your interviews, you said that your dad motivated you to be courageous. What is it that he gave you? And how would you define the terms “courage” and “fear”?

I was motivated and impressed by his determination. He was a political prisoner in the 1950s, and after three years, he managed to escape from the camp in Jáchymov only to then spent another eight years in prison. He was already so respected. He didn’t talk much, but when he did say something, it was always very rational. He was able to stand up for almost anything when he really believed it was right. He was determined, firm and principled, which were all inspirational qualities to me. One real thing that I feel that he gave me was a tendency to behave a bit cheekily, but always courageously and firmly towards those who are already powerful -- such as politicians and celebrities, basically those who are already so accustomed to getting what they want -- but being very respectful and humble toward people who may not have so much power. I try to teach this lesson to every new employee at People in Need. Respect, humility, self-confidence and courage are what People in Need is all about or, at least, what I want it to be. Respect and humility toward those we help and self-confidence and courage toward people with more power, such as politicians, businesspeople etc.

"Respect, humility, self-confidence and courage are what People in Need is all about..."

In your personal or professional life, have you ever found yourself in a situation where fear paralyzed you so much that you couldn’t handle it and needed to ask others for help?

I am fortunate that in moments of danger, I tend to act instinctively and quickly. When a boat with my colleagues overturned in the middle of a Siberian River, I just knew that I needed to immediately jump out of the boat into the water. Feelings of fear and stress often come later for me. I am a man who, for thirty or forty years, has travelled the world, hiked through mountains, paddled through rivers, navigated conflict zones and driven on roads with unpredictable motorists, so I’ve experienced a few crisis situations. You could probably say that these situations could very easily have cost me my life – but luckily, I reacted quickly, instinctively, and appropriately. It is difficult for me to deal with some types of psychological phobias and anxieties, especially when they relate to my immediate surroundings. I’m worse at dealing with those things than, say, the quick reactions required when you find yourself near a place that’s being bombed.

When you’re afraid, do you think that you sweep the feeling away with a quick response?

"Children, and the responsibility you feel for them, have been a game changer for me."

I don’t have time and space for fear, I react quickly. But, of course, I worry. Especially after having had three children, the fear of going to a war zone or deciding whether not to cross a mountain ridge without climbing ropes seems like a much bigger deal now than it was when I was single. I used to think -- and maybe it was a bit of an exaggeration and probably not so humbly -- whatever happens, happens, and at least it will be fast. Children, and the responsibility you feel for them, have been a game changer for me. When you have kids, the way you think about things changes, you become more careful. Not just in crisis situations, it’s about being more careful in advance, about having better preparation in advance, thinking ahead, etc.

Can you think of a situation, for example, from your childhood or when you were a boy scout, when some a sense fear overwhelmed you and the way you learned to overcome it then can be seen in how you work and react to things today?

There are two moments. The first was when I was five. My closest friend lived in a village about 500 meters from mine. Of course, I was terribly afraid to return home at night along the dark path connecting our two villages. But I always wanted stay at my friend’s house for as long as possible, so, one night, I gathered up all my courage and ran down the scary path as fast as I could. After a few of these runs, I realized that I was not actually in any danger and the path wasn’t actually all that scary. Another fear I have or rather, something I really don’t like doing, is dealing with a larger group of people when I need to deliver unpleasant news. With people who are different from me, I’ve never minded conflict, but I always find it harder when it involves my own team at People in Need (my “sect”, as my partner calls them) or my friends. When I must deal with something negative or acknowledge that something isn’t working, or even when I have to say something that I know people won’t agree with, it’s difficult. Of course, I don’t like situations like that. But I’ve had to do this many times and I know that it’s better to take a breath and go for it rather than put it off and have that inner tension. To not be afraid to do unpopular things. I run an organization employing 2,000 people, so I am subject to various pressures and I have to deal with various dilemmas and decide things on a daily basis. Not everything is always ideal and rosy, there are unpleasant things, too. But it’s always better to do them sooner rather than later.

Why do you think it is good to help others and what is essential about doing it?

"It’s like Erich Fromm says, it’s not having, but being that makes a life meaningful."

I wouldn't force anyone to help others. It must be a calling. If someone doesn’t want to help, that’s their business. I’m no worse off for it. On the other hand, as I’m sure is the experience of the world’s greatest businesspeople, athletes, intellectuals, moral elites, and also for regular people like us, it’s really enriching to do something for someone else. But not everyone has this feeling in them. I mean, for some people, things like, medals, money, cars, property and relationships mean more to them. To each his own. To me, helping leads to a rewarding and challenging life and in the end, you will be left with a large amount of experiences. It’s like Erich Fromm says, it’s not having, but being that makes a life meaningful.

Have you ever experienced burnout or were there moments when you thought you just couldn’t do it anymore?

Yes, this has happened to me a couple of times. To be honest, if someone has been doing something for thirty years, you can’t always believe that they look forward to it every morning and that everything is always great. Of course not. I’ve had ups and downs, just like all of us. Twice, I’ve left People in Need. The first time, after five or six years of building up PIN, I was just on the board for a year and a half and I did some stuff for President Havel. Then, I returned because the war in Kosovo started and there was a need for people who had experience working in war zones, of which there were only three at PIN at that time.* The second time I left PIN was about ten years ago. I took six months off to fulfil a lifelong dream of taking my family to India. I didn’t work at all. Instead, I read, I meditated and I wrote. That experience helped me a lot. It helped me to fulfil my dream and really do something for myself and I recharged my batteries. Being stuck in a rut with no visible way out is a terrible feeling. At PIN, there are a lot of things to deal with every day, every week and every month and you have to have the energy to deal with them all. In just the last two or three years, we’ve dealt with Covid, the coup in Myanmar, the conflict in Karabakh, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine – just one crisis after another. My time in India gave me perspective and helped me to realize that I do not need to die working for People in Need. I can do something else from time to time.

What benefit does first-hand experience of crises have?

Maybe it’s the wisdom to think about things in the world a bit differently than someone who has no experience. It’s self-development, but also an understanding and knowledge of the world. I’ve had the opportunity to work in about 50 countries where we’ve done and are currently doing impactful work. There are so many ways to help—for example, you could be part of an ultra-environmental, pro-climate organization, or an organization that works to accept all refugees coming to Europe. When you have experienced different kinds of crises, you cannot care only about refugees from abroad and not address the situation of Gypsies in the Ústí nad Labem region. I have the feeling that, because of all my different experiences, I have really expanded my horizons and have a more holistic understanding of the world.

"’s really enriching to do something for someone else."

What do you think about people's behavior on social media? Do you think that sometimes it’s more about being trendy and visible than actually about helping people?

Do you think Bill Gates wants to be visible, or does he really want to help? He donated half of his property, but he could have easily given more. I think that’s bit of an artificial question and, to be honest, I don’t really care. If someone wants to be visible and help, let them do it. For example, some of the Czech Republic’s former beauty queens have advised us that instead of improving conditions in children’s homes, we should be working to ensure that these children are not in such homes at all. In my twenty, thirty years of work, I have a lot of examples like this. When someone really wants to help, they just don’t just do it to impress others or placate emotions, but it is rationally thought-out help, because “help” is also a field. Volunteering can be done wrong, good intentions can also lead to bad outcomes. On the one hand, I think that someone wanting to help is great, and if you have the option to promote it thanks to being successful in business or being a well-known person, great. But it is important that it be done professionally.

Can helping others and the desire follow danger or risk, feel like a drug? And is having a ‘God Complex’ also dangerous?

If we look at client-focused work, for example with seniors, or with people who need lifelong social support. it is rewarding on the one hand and terribly tiring on the other. I couldn’t do it, I’m more of a manager and a leader. The need to return to a conflict zone even has its own name, in Czech we call it, “red cross syndrome”. People with this syndrome are pulled back into a risky environments because they’ve been through crises before, such as war or famine, and these experiences were so extraordinary that they made other life experiences seem mundane. They try all sorts of things to get an adrenaline rush, they go bungee jumping or they let tanks roll over them, all in order to experience something extraordinary. At People in Need, we already experience adrenaline in our work, so we don’t have to buy it in the form of special experiences. But the need is definitely there and it is necessary to work with it somehow. I think it can wear some people out. They might go and become expats who travel from one crisis to another, but are not anchored to any one place. I am too traditional for this kind of lifestyle, I’ve always wanted to stay here in the Czech Republic, have children, be able to go to my country house and take walks in the forest. But also, to travel around the world and help, where it’s possible.

"Respect, humility, self-confidence and courage are what People in Need is all about..."

Let’s move on to more general things. How has your idea of an ideal society evolved since the time of the Velvet Revolution?

Even in 1989, I did not think that we would create an ideal society, I’ve always been too realistic for that. I am a naturalist by profession and that is an exact science, not a social one. Things cannot be made up, they have to be measured and calculated. I’m pretty down-to-earth. My dad was 40 when he had me. He started his family later in life because he was in prison. In 1989, he was very enthusiastic, communism had taken away a part of his life. But he said: “Don’t forget, the same 15 million people live here now as they did three months ago. Those who have been honest and hardworking are still honest and hardworking, while scumbags are still scumbags. And there are plenty of them, so count on two or three generations before society gets anywhere.” I told him he was crazy. After all, we will have a parliament, a senate, a constitution, a market economy, and in ten years, all the bad things will be shaken off, right? Well, it’s been 32 years and we’re still not there yet.

And when you look at yourself and society then vs today?

Am I disappointed? That’s a very clichéd journalistic question.

I mean, for example, whether you’re drawn more to the left, because, after the revolution, after communism, it naturally pulled us to the right.

Definitely. It’s funny that you’re asking. They say that if you weren’t an idealist in your youth, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re not a pragmatist when you’re older, you don’t have a brain – I feel that I am moving in the opposite direction. In the 1990s, I really thought that basically everyone could make a living and that it was up to each of us and that we deserved what we built. That was silly. Because of the work I do and because I’ve seen so many people who weren’t born lucky enough to have parents who invested in them, like mine did, I’ve seen so much injustice. An economic system based on working only on oneself and one’s own career is not a solution. I think I used to be in the middle of the political spectrum, maybe even a conservative liberal. Now, I’m definitely a social liberal.

"They say that if you weren’t an idealist in your youth, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re not a pragmatist when you’re older, you don’t have a brain – I feel that I am moving in the opposite direction." 

Do you think Czechs are knowledgeable about the rest of the world? Or are we a small nation with a limited reach?

Both are true. In some ways, Czechia is very open, Czechs like to travel — go hiking and exploring in places like Nepal and India and around the world. But on the other hand, we can be so strangely small. The mentality being, for example, if something significant, but perhaps unpleasant and problematic happens, don’t drag us small Czech in the middle of Europe into it! But that mentality is changing now. The Czech Republic is behaving completely differently regarding the war in Ukraine. It acts like a country that has ideals that transcend it. For the last 15 years, we have been a society that wakes up in the morning, lives during the day and goes to bed in the evening. We have been in maintenance mode, so to speak. And I’m not talking about boy scouts, People in Need, or hundreds of thousands of young people here, I’m talking about the values presented to us mainly by politicians, who create the norms and influence society. They were very small and didn’t do anything extra. Now, suddenly, we’re able to act like a society with ideals and we’re willing to stand up for them. That’s very refreshing to me.

When are Czechs afraid to help and when aren’t they? For example, in the context of a previous refugee crisis…**

Even during that crisis, I did not think that Czechia was such a closed and xenophobic society. I repeatedly pointed out that people are simply afraid of otherness. Now, we can see it can work the other way around. We’re not used to dealing with people from Africa or Asia. The closed nature of communism did not allow it. Who runs into an African person in their town’s corner store? Until recently, nearly nobody. At that time, instead of reassuring people and saying, “we are a transit country, if someone needs to stay here for a while, we can integrate a few thousand, maybe tens of thousands of people”, politicians stoked fear in ordinary citizens. They described refugees as black masses of people with no faces, names, or destinies and who were simply a danger to our society. Now, it’s quite the opposite. First, Ukrainians feel close to us, everyone knows a Ukrainian man or woman, and Russia comes easily to mind. And when the Czech government says, yes, we have to help the refugees, we can do it — that’s the German motto. The government is leading by example this time and reassuring people instead of scaring them.

"Now, suddenly, we’re able to act like a society with ideals and we’re willing to stand up for them. That’s very refreshing to me."

What do you think the biggest challenge for the world will be?

This is a very difficult question. I think it’s to find a way to reach an agreement within the world. Euro-American dominance is over, the world has become multipolar. That’s what we wanted, I mean, it was unfair, why should the world be dominated by America and Europe? It was not fair in some sense, but the world was more predictable; we can see that now. Currently, there will be a period of searching for those who will run the world, i.e. the great powers, or blocks, will need to come to some sort of agreement— at the level of UN and the Security Council – about how to make the world less dangerous for common people, which it is nowadays.

Finally, how is courage born in people? Do you have any advice for people who are paralyzed by fear these days?

"Resilience and strength are the breeding ground for more courage."

Fear is a strong emotion and cannot be dismantled easily. It works when you try to rationalize fear and measure the degree of risk or the probability of impact. That’s what I do, risk management, after all, is part of my job. In my opinion, courage is inherited and learned from family, culture and society, for example in organisations like the boy scouts, all help people in overcoming difficulties and being resilient. Tough things like winter mountain hikes, swimming in a cold river, working for others and the ability to do things that push you to the limit also help. Resilience and strength are the breeding ground for more courage. While it doesn’t always happen, overcoming difficulties – which is one of the main values of scouting – is one of the ways in which people can learn to be more courageous in their lives.

Listen to the interview in Czech here
Read the interview in Czech here

* The Kosovo War was an armed conflict that lasted from February 1998 to June 1999
** From 2015 – 2017, a very large number of Syrian refugees came to Europe seeking asylum as a result of the Syrian Civil War. This sudden influx of movement caused a migrant crisis in various countries around Europe, including the Czech Republic. 
Author: People in Need

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