BAIDOA, Somalia — In one of the world’s hungriest cities, the new head of the United Nations was trudging past makeshift tents made of bedsheets and mosquito nets. The displacement camp had ballooned in recent weeks as Somalis fled a devastating drought and conflict. Just 15 miles away, al-Qaeda-linked militants controlled villages, blocking aid.
“Are you receiving assistance?” António Guterres, 67, asked a skinny man with a graying goatee, standing outside one tent.
Abdullahi Mohammed Abdi, 48, looked at the man in the white button-down shirt and bulletproof vest, sweating in the 100-degree heat. Abdi’s family was sharing one small bucket of cornmeal per day.
“We’ve received very little,” he said flatly.
Guterres has become secretary general of the United Nations at perhaps the most challenging moment in its history. More than 65 million people have been displaced by conflict and crisis, more than at any time since World War II. For the first time in recent memory, the world may suffer four famines in a single year.
There is a yawning gap between humanitarian needs and U.N. funds. And the world body’s biggest donor, the United States, has a new government that is much more skeptical of foreign aid. Donald Trump declared before his inauguration that the United Nations was “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
Guterres is a rare combination, supporters say — a negotiator skilled at working the halls of foreign ministries and a devoted humanitarian who spends as much time as possible on the front lines of crises such as Somalia’s. He will now have to tread a fine line between speaking against U.S. policies that he sees as inhumane (he issued an implicit criticism of President Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries) and not alienating a critical source of funding.
One member of Guterres’s staff half-joked that his goal was “to stay off Trump’s Twitter feed.”
Among Guterres’s biggest concerns is that the increasing curbs on immigration and refugee resettlement in the United States and Europe will be replicated across the world. Guterres noted that the majority of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, including millions in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It is difficult to explain to a country like Kenya that has more than 500,000 refugees that they should go on accepting this large number of refugees, seeing the kind of measures that the United States or that several European countries are taking,” Guterres said Wednesday in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post the day after his Somalia visit.
Guterres’s background reflects a mix of pragmatism and idealism. As a young man, he opposed the dictatorship then in place in Portugal and eventually became prime minister after democracy was established. He is a Catholic who had a leading role in a staunchly secular socialist party and a big-thinking intellectual who is such an exacting planner that he arranged the classical-music playlists his staff listened to between meetings.
From 2005 to 2015, Guterres led the U.N. refugee agency. He was known for his frequent visits to war zones and refugee camps, where he was moved by the suffering he witnessed, gathering stories he would repeat to donors, journalists and colleagues.
There was the woman who had been raped by 17 armed men in war-torn Congo. The Syrian woman in a Lebanese refugee camp whose tent burned down, killing her children and leaving her badly burned. The two disabled Syrian refugee children who were unable to leave their tent.
His first field visit since he was named to his five-year term in December was to southwestern Somalia. The country has been in near-chaos since its government collapsed in 1991 and is suffering in the face of an Islamist insurgency and a prolonged drought that has left millions hungry.
“Seeing these people, what I feel above all is an enormous sense of duty to minimize as much as possible this kind of suffering and to fight to create the conditions for this suffering not to happen,” Guterres said.
On the trip to Baidoa, the new U.N. chief expressed frustration that Trump’s latest activities had consumed the news cycle just as four countries are on the brink of famine or already experiencing it. Last month, Guterres had warned the world that 20 million people were facing possible famine conditions in Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia and asked for $4.4 billion in aid. The money is only trickling in.
The Trump administration plans to propose massive cuts to foreign assistance, which would probably include U.N. funding.
“America’s relationship with the United Nations has never been more challenging, and part of the reason for that is ideological and part is budgetary,” said Peter Yeo, a vice president at the United Nations Foundation, which advocates for U.N. causes.
Many people inside and outside the United Nations saw Guterres’s predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, as reluctant to raise issues that might lead to tensions with world powers or implicate the United Nations. They cite a lack of attention to atrocities committed during the early months of Syria’s war and the delay in acknowledging the role played by U.N. peacekeepers in a major cholera outbreak in Haiti.
Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said that Guterres “has a responsibility to push the council to talk about things they are not ready to talk about,” including human rights violations in Burma and the conflict in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia is battling rebels.
Guterres has come in for some criticism for his handling of the European refugee crisis that erupted in 2015, with aid groups and former U.N. officials saying his agency did not do enough to push for the resettlement of people fleeing war. Guterres has rejected that claim, saying he had been lobbying European leaders for years to accept more refugees.
The new U.N. leader has announced ambitious goals — streamlining the organization’s bureaucracy, improving peacekeeping operations and focusing more on preventing conflict before it occurs. The United Nations spends about 70 percent of its overall budget on peacekeeping and has been rocked in recent years by a scandal involving sexual abuse by its soldiers.
In the interview, Guterres said some peacekeeping missions were poorly funded or were dispatched to countries where “there is no peace to keep.”
He gave several examples of needed changes. In South Sudan, where a civil war has killed thousands, the operation “would need a much more robust mandate” to protect civilians, he said. And in Mali, where peacekeepers are frequently targeted by well-armed Islamist extremists, “troops lack the capacity to be able to be more mobile, agile and effective,” he said. On Thursday, Guterres announced new measures to crack down on sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
Guterres had always been drawn to places on the periphery, beginning as a young activist in Lisbon, where he did volunteer work in the city’s slums. He had grown up wanting to be a physicist, but his opposition to the military dictatorship drove him into politics.
In 1994, campaigning for prime minister, he described himself as a man of compassion, but his sharp debating skills earned him the nickname of the “talking pickax.” He led the country from 1995 to 2002, pushing through the financial measures necessary for Portugal to adopt the euro. When he left office, Guterres sneaked back into the slums by himself once a week to teach math classes.
“Some of his students had no idea that their teacher was the former prime minister,” said António Vitorino, his former deputy prime minister.
When Guterres took over the U.N. refugee agency in 2005, he decided it was too centralized. He closed several offices in Geneva, at the headquarters, and relocated employees to field offices near refugee populations.
He at times chafed at the institution’s red tape and the security precautions that limited his movement.
Once, in northern Iraq, he told his team that he wanted to visit the ancient citadel in Irbil. When they told him it was too dangerous, Guterres declared, “If I can’t go with you, I’m taking a taxi,” he recalled.
His security team eventually relented.
Guterres can be near-obsessive when he wants answers. Not long after he was elected secretary general, preparing for a meeting on South Sudan, he called the top U.N. peacekeeping official, Hervé Ladsous, six times on a Saturday.
“He has a remarkable desire to move, to make decisions,” Ladsous said, recalling the calls.
But Guterres also takes the long view. He is a voracious reader and recently has become particularly interested in the period leading up to World War I — when a “multipolar continent” tore itself apart without common institutions. Now he fears that disorder is returning.
“You have seen nationalism coming back,” he said. “You have seen different forms of irrationality coming back.”
Despite his constant travels, Guterres remains close to his 94-year-old mother in Portugal, whom he said he calls every day. He is married and has two children.
In Baidoa, Somalia’s foreign minister, Abdusalam Omer, looked on admiringly as Guterres wandered through the camp, peppering its residents with questions.
“This guy is committed,” Omer whispered.
But the most heartfelt reaction to the new U.N. chief may have come from Abdi, who had spent two months in the displacement camp, his family’s food supplies gradually dwindling.
“Now we see that the humanitarians are coming,” he told Guterres. “We are thinking that today is the best day. Tonight is a different night.”