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Opinion | U.N. Humanitarian Chief: World Leaders Are Failing Us

The failure of leadership is also evident in some nations’ almost unconditional wartime support provided to their allies, despite abundant evidence that it’s enabling widespread suffering and potential breaches of international humanitarian law. You can particularly see this in Gaza, where civilian lives and infrastructure are experiencing excessive harm. You can also see it in the obstruction and politicization of humanitarian assistance, while hunger and disease spread and humanitarian workers, health care workers, and journalists have all endured unacceptable losses. Just look at the weapons that have continued to flow to Israel from the United States and many other countries, despite the obviously appalling impact of the war on civilians.

It is evident in leaders’ failure to hold to account, and even in efforts to undermine accountability, those who breach the U.N. Charter and international law, emboldening those for whom our rules and norms are mere obstacles to their greed for power and resources.

And in my world, these failures are particularly evident in the fact that every year, international funding for humanitarian relief reaches nowhere near the amount required, while individual nations’ military spending increases. In 2023, the world’s collective military expenditure rose to $2.4 trillion, while the United Nations and other aid organizations scraped together just $24 billion for humanitarian assistance, a mere 43 percent of the amount required to meet the most urgent needs of hundreds of millions of people.

Nevertheless, I still have hope.

Despite the many inadequacies of world leadership, I have also seen ample evidence in the last three years, and throughout my career, that humanity, compassion and people’s determination and desire to help one another still burn strong. I have seen this across many world crises, in the host communities who share the little they have with people fleeing conflict and hardship, often for months and years on end; in the spontaneous mobilization of local and national groups who support their communities in times of crisis, such as Sudan’s youth-led Emergency Response Rooms that rallied to provide medical, engineering and other emergency support; and in the courageous efforts of humanitarian workers across the globe.

Throughout my seven tours of duty with the United Nations, I have seen the unique capability and can-do spirit of this body and its personnel to take on and manage unbelievably complex and demanding situations, and to secure solutions to seemingly intractable problems, when empowered to do so. It was this spirit that in 2022 drove my efforts to secure the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that allowed for vast amounts of grain to finally be exported from Ukraine after months of being blocked. This demonstrated that even bitter enemies locked in conflict could agree to mitigate the war’s impact on the food security of millions around the world.

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