As conflicts rage in Ukraine and the Middle East, the picture offered to the world by the United Nations in New York is often one of division and paralysis. But far from U.N. headquarters things look different, its agencies mounting relief efforts in the most challenging of circumstances.
On a recent day in the Gaza Strip, U.N. officials were offering shelter in a vocational center to over 30,000 people sleeping on bare floors amid puddles of mud and overflowing sewage. “People lost everything, and they need everything,” said Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, the U.N. body that cares for Palestinians, who had traveled to Gaza for two days with the agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini.
The officials were also trying to buck up their own staff. One U.N. staff member told them that he finds a place to hide and cry every day in order to cope, Ms. Touma said. So far, 130 staff members for UNRWA have been killed in the war and many are missing, feared dead under the rubble.
The United Nations was created in the aftermath of World War II with the intention of “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war” by maintaining international peace and stability. While it has failed to achieve that ambitious goal, it has evolved into a vast global humanitarian aid agency that many call more vital than ever.
In Ukraine, where an estimated 17 million people need help, the U.N. refugee agency has provided cash assistance, housing and shelter. After the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, U.N. convoys carrying food, water, tents and medicine were the main lifeline for Syrians living in opposition-held territories. In Afghanistan, UNICEF provides 15 million children with food and medical care.
“Today, the world is politically fragmented and too often failing to deal with the root causes of conflict, climate change and a lack of development,” said Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ humanitarian and emergency relief chief, in an interview with the Times. “We have to step in to provide lifesaving relief, and I see this as an extension of the original founding purpose, rather than a move away from it.”
The work is expensive and dangerous. UNRWA, which was struggling financially even before the Israel-Gaza war, is so overwhelmed trying to shelter and feed displaced Gazans that experts say it remains unclear when it can return to normal operations and what role it might play in helping Gaza recover once the war ends.
And it is only one agency. Operating around the globe are the World Food Program, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Development Program, to name just a few, with a combined staff of more than 125,000.
“This concentration by the U.N. on trying to improve the lot of humanity in order to decrease the likelihood of combat has brought forth, over the years, a profusion of U.N. specialized agencies designed to mitigate or cure the ills of our global population,” said Stephen Schlesinger, a historian and author of “Act of Creation,” a book about the founding of the United Nations.
The United Nations’ logistical abilities far exceed the capacities of the private sector or government aid agencies. It runs its own air fleet. It has warehouses across the world in countries including Kenya, the United Arab Emirates and Denmark. The World Food Program alone operates 20 ships on any given day.
Critics, including some of its top former officials, have said the United Nations is too bureaucratic, has covered up internal scandals and is slow to enforce meaningful changes that would streamline its ballooning budget and the overlapping mandates of some agencies.
“There is certainly an organizational culture that is resistant to change within the U.N.,” said Eugene Chen, a former senior U.N. official who worked on finance and reform issues and is now a director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. “The fact that the U.N. is not the most effective and efficient organization in the world is not just the fault of the U.N.; part of the blame has to rest with member states.”
Still, supporters of the United Nations often say that if the organization did not exist it would have to be invented, even if it has not been able to stop war.
“We are seeing the U.N. losing space as a mediator in conflict, retreating from large-scale peacekeeping operations in many countries,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations for International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention agency. “What the U.N. is left with is its humanitarian tools. This remains the bedrock of U.N. engagement in many crises, and it’s very hard to replace.”
The United Nations has evolved slowly since its founding in 1945. For a while after the Cold War, U.N. peacekeeping forces flourished. Known also as the blue helmets, they were drawn from member states’ police and armed forces to help war-torn countries maintain peace. The U.N. Security Council approved peacekeeping deployments to places like Somalia, Cambodia, Kosovo and El Salvador. A department for peacekeeping was created in 1992 to meet the growing demand for U.N. blue helmets.
But that, too, has taken a blow in recent years as the reputation of U.N. peacekeepers has been tarnished in a series of controversies. Peacekeepers were charged with sexual violence and the exploitation of women and girls in the Central African Republic and Congo and blamed for spreading a cholera epidemic in Haiti. Today 17 peacekeeping missions are operational.
And recently the Security Council, the 15-member body tasked with keeping the world safe and stable, has been virtually paralyzed because of the growing divisions among its five permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — which can be quick to use their veto powers to stymie action.
The U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres, who arrived at the helm of the organization from a humanitarian background leading its refugee agency, appears to have endorsed the new reality facing the organization. The bulk of Mr. Guterres’s efforts when conflicts have erupted during his tenure have centered around humanitarian diplomacy.
Mr. Guterres offered to mediate in the early months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but for a time President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would not even take his phone calls, Mr. Guterres’s spokesman has said. Mr. Guterres instead concentrated on alleviating the war’s impact on global food prices and security and on evacuating civilians from Russian-held cities.
He has fared no better in the latest war. Israeli officials angry with some of his comments about the strife have called for his resignation. The United Nations did not have a major role in negotiating the release of hostages or the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Mr. Guterres’s role has revolved, once again, around humanitarian relief. He has been negotiating for access for aid convoys, including ones delivering fuel to U.N. facilities and hospitals, and securing the safety for his staff in Gaza.
Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for the United Nations, said lack of unity among Security Council members fed the perception of the United Nations’ irrelevancy but added: “There is no veto power in humanitarian aid. The question is access and money.”
The Security Council, too, has increasingly turned to adopting humanitarian resolutions when it has faced political deadlocks. After weeks of inaction and rounds of vetoes by the United States, Russia and China over the wording of a resolution on the Israel-Hamas war, the Council finally settled on a resolution narrowed to a humanitarian focus.
Humanitarian work can be exceedingly dangerous. Aid workers have been shot, kidnapped or forced to flee, leaving behind their belongings. In Gaza, the United Nations said, more staff members have been killed than in all conflicts combined in the organization’s history.
But the work goes on. In south Gaza, where Palestinians who fled airstrikes in the north have been sheltering, and where many now face new orders to evacuate, visiting U.N. officials described a landscape of collapsed buildings and piles of rubble and solid waste. Shops and pharmacies were shuttered. A vegetable stall sold just a few pieces of produce, and people formed very long lines outside an open bakery. Children were everywhere they looked, the officials said.
UNRWA has been the coordinator and distributor of the aid crossing from Rafah, Egypt, into Gaza, which reached a high of about 200 trucks daily during the recent cease-fire. Mr. Lazzarini told reporters recently that 1.2 million Gazans, more than half of the number of people displaced, were now sheltering at U.N. facilities.
Since the fighting resumed on Friday, only a limited amount of aid has entered Gaza. Humanitarian groups condemned Israel’s latest call for Gazans to evacuate as its invasion expands in the south, warning that civilians had nowhere left to seek refuge.
Mr. Lazzarini said in a statement on Monday that civilians “need everything: food, water, shelter, and mostly safety.”
He added: “No place is safe in Gaza.”