In 1975, an idealistic 17-year-old leaves the small Norwegian town of Stavanger to help the poor and wretched in Colombia. Two decades later, Jan Egeland returns to Bogotá as the United Nations’ special envoy to a country still ravaged by violence. In between, he works on the 1993 Oslo Accord, which so nearly brought peace to Israel and Palestine, and later becomes the UN’s top humanitarian official.

Throughout this memoir, Egeland presents himself as one of the more assertive elements in the UN, who likes to “speak truth to power”.

During the 2006 war in Lebanon, he accuses Israel of violating international law and criticises Hizbollah for “cowardly blending into the civilian population among women and children”. So A Billion Lives – the number without clean water, food or a dollar a day – promises to be a dramatic read. Indeed the day he takes over as Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad is blown up by a car bomb, leaving one of his predecessors, the Brazilian diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other UN staff dead.

But considering the material Egeland can call on, this is a strangely lifeless description of what the book’s subtitle calls “the frontlines of humanity”. Its prose and dialogue are jarringly banal: “As I enter the packed meeting room next to my new office, Kevin Kennedy comes forward to introduce himself: ‘Welcome. I look forward to working with you, but have to excuse myself to go and pack. I am leaving for Baghdad in a few hours.’ ” And so it goes on, an endless series of meetings, briefings, press conferences, visits and phone calls.

The exception is a vivid description of visiting Robert Mugabe in December 2005, several months after the Zimbabwean regime has bulldozed tens of thousands of homes in urban areas, where the opposition Movement for Democratic Change is strongest.

Surrounded by three silent, nodding ministers, President Mugabe is initially calm. But when his visitor offers to supply shelters for the estimated 700,000 displaced people, the tone changes. “Keep your tents, we do not need them. Tents are for Arabs!”

Egeland asks why shelters offend him and Mugabe replies with a characteristic mix of pride, pedantry and wishful thinking: “The word connotes impermanency. We want permanent housing here. In terms of humanitarian needs it is not even as bad here as in South Africa.”

The Norwegian keeps trying, emphasising the UN’s desire to put politics and diplomatic rows to one side but Mugabe’s response is revealing: “Kofi Annan is an African, but he and the organisation are being used politically, or, more specifically, manipulated by Britain and Blair. Even the innocent Prince Charles is now being manipulated.”

Life expectancy for women is down to 34, hundreds of thousands are homeless, but Comrade Bob’s greatest regret seems to be that his old pal Prince Charles isn’t returning his calls.

Egeland gets to the nub of the Mugabe problem: “Zimbabwe is thus yet another case where those who could press for positive change, its African neighbours, look the other way.” But his book flounders on a tide of false hope that can be summarised by his final chapter title – “the generation that can end the suffering”. For if one looks at the areas he has devoted himself to – the Middle East, Darfur, Colombia, Zimbabwe, northern Uganda – the UN effort seems to have failed.

Egeland never addresses the UN’s problems, from the corrupt Oil for Food programme, to allowing dictatorships to head human rights committees, or its inability to follow condemnation with action.

In one typical episode, Egeland briefs the United Nations’ ambassadors that ethnic cleansing is happening in Darfur and a strongly worded statement is drafted. But it is never published: “Chinese, Pakistani and Algerian diplomats, however, ensured that the German permanent representative could only issue a bland statement after my address,” he writes sadly.

Stymied by America’s imperial arrogance in believing it could rebuild Iraq alone, or Chinese and South African complicity with Sudan and Zimbabwe, it’s now hard to see how the UN can be anything more than a global delivery service for food and blankets.

A Billion Lives: an Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity by Jan Egeland

This piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 3 May 2008