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On the ground in wars and disasters, the UN plays a vital role

A UN-provided tent camp was set up last month in Khan Younis for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.Fatima Shbair/Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — 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 UN headquarters, the situations look different, its agencies mounting relief efforts in the most challenging of circumstances.

On a recent day in the Gaza Strip, UN officials were offering shelter in a vocational center to more than 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 UN body that cares for Palestinians, who had traveled to Gaza for two days with the agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini.

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The officials were also trying to buck up their own staff. One UN staff member told them that he finds a place to hide and cry every day in order to cope, 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 UN refugee agency has provided cash assistance, housing, and shelter. After the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, UN 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,” Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ humanitarian and emergency relief chief, said in an interview. “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.”

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The work is expensive and dangerous. UNRWA, which was struggling financially even before the Israel-Hamas war, is so overwhelmed trying to shelter and feed displaced Palestinians in Gaza 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.

As of late November, the UN office for humanitarian affairs projected that it needed $56.8 billion this year to assist 250 million people. That includes an emergency appeal for $1.23 billion on Nov. 6 for Gaza and the West Bank.

Last year, the United Nations faced what it called a record shortfall in humanitarian funding and was forced to cut food rations, educational services at refugee camps, and the provision of electricity. This year so far only 32 percent of the amount that it has appealed for has been funded.

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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 UN,” said Eugene Chen, a former senior UN 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 UN is not the most effective and efficient organization in the world is not just the fault of the UN; 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 UN 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 UN is left with is its humanitarian tools. This remains the bedrock of UN engagement in many crises, and it’s very hard to replace.”

UN 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 Guterres’s efforts when conflicts have erupted during his tenure have centered around humanitarian diplomacy.

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Guterres offered to mediate in the early months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but for a time Russian President Vladimir Putin would not even take his phone calls, Guterres’s spokesperson has said. 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. Guterres’s role has revolved, once again, around humanitarian relief. He has been negotiating for access for aid convoys, including ones delivering fuel to UN facilities and hospitals, and securing safety for his staff in Gaza.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson 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.”

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.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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