A former student leader of the Velvet Revolution who chose NGO work over a seat in the Czech legislature, Pánek, 35, learned early that "there is always a niche which the big organizations cannot serve." In Sarajevo, he supplied food to 18,000 small children and pregnant women. In Chechnya, he led an effort to repair more than 5,000 roofs. People in Need supports Cuban dissidents, helps persecuted groups in Belarus and runs One World, an international human-rights documentary film festival. In 2001, Belarus authorities shut down People in Need's center in Minsk and expelled its director. (A minor inconvenience, Pánek says.) Reader's Digest magazine named him European of the Year for 2003, but Pánek says he is "not driven by charity. I am angry with the injustices which keep happening around the world."
When he arrived in Afghanistan in December 2001, Simon Pánek looked for a niche where the tiny resources of his Czech NGO, the People in Need Foundation, could make a difference. With just $50,000 in hand (and the promise of $200,000 more) there was no point in joining the scrum of aid agencies feeding displaced Afghans. Instead, he decided to help them return to their homes, reasoning that any delay would cause them to miss another planting season. In Mazar-e-Sharif, Pánek's 150-family pilot project proved so successful that he became a coordinator of repatriation efforts for the area, hrlping some 5,000 families return home during the spring.