During his 40-year career with the United Nations, Missouri native David Gressly witnessed more than his share of global challenges — from public health threats like Ebola to the birth of a new nation. Most recently, Gressly served in the dual role of UN Resident Coordinator and UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.
In December 2023, BWC President Peter Yeo spoke with Gressly about the highs, lows and legacies of his storied career. The dialogue has been edited for print.
Watch the full conversation on YouTube.
Yeo: Under your leadership, the UN led an effort to remove more than 1 million gallons of oil from a rusting tanker off the coast of Yemen. Why was the UN so central in the work?
Gressly: The UN was the only body that could actually have facilitated the oil transfer off the FSO Safer. Only the UN had access to all sides of the existing conflicts in the Red Sea region, where the ship was moored. Therefore, not only was the UN in a position to do it, it had an obligation. Some people talked about military solutions. Others talked of technical solutions. But in the end, it was a political problem that had to be solved politically before launching into technical problem-solving. Only the UN was on the ground to do it.
“The UN, like any organization, has to continuously reinvent itself. Humanitarian action today is not what it was 25 years ago. It’s more complex because the operating environments are more complex.”
Yeo: During your more than four decades with the UN, you’ve tackled many challenges in the Middle East, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa. Can you think of a moment that embodies the sweep of your professional career?
Gressly: I would go back to the referendum for independence in South Sudan.
What I loved about that moment was how peaceful it was after 20 years of war. I was very, very proud of what the United Nations did to help create that space. Getting kids into school for the first time, opening thousands of kilometers of roads, demining, all the things required to make it ready, as well as supporting elections, the census, and ultimately the referendum itself. So everything the UN can do was done to help that path to independence in 2011.
The referendum itself was also a beautiful day. Seeing people lined up for the first time in their lives to vote on the future of their country. Everywhere I traveled that day, people lined up peacefully. It was a joyous day.
Yeo: As you look at the next 10 years, what do you think are the emerging trends that we should focus on?
Gressly: The UN, like any organization, has to continuously reinvent itself. Humanitarian action today is not what it was 25 years ago. It’s more complex because the operating environments are more complex. We see the evolution even of warfare on the ground, which complicates humanitarian assistance. So it all makes for a very difficult environment in which to work, and we need to adapt to that.
And I think we’ll see continued evolution on the peace and security side and continue to develop the tools required to solve problems locally. One of the key ways I believe is to focus internally on tensions that exist where countries are in conflict and find solutions politically that help deal with very old grievances. That will be a core challenge as we go forward. Without that, humanitarian needs will just increase, the need for recovery will increase, and development will be compromised.
So we’ve got to focus on the basics: peace and security.
Yeo: How do you remain hopeful when you’re dealing with political and economic crises that are so difficult to resolve?
David Gressly: First, you have to take your own ego out of what you’re doing. Because usually problems are quite complex by their nature, and they take time. And often we project our own timeframe into situations which we work. You need to step back and say, “I will make a contribution while I’m here.” Others will follow and will have to take the time it needs to find the right kind of political solution that is sustainable.
I say this often: I’m a short-term pessimist, it’s going to get worse, but a long-term optimist, because in the end, people will find the way forward. We need to understand that may take time and, therefore, we need to accompany people until they are successful in creating a stable political environment, a good governance system, rule of law, and effective support to the people of their country.
It will come. It will come everywhere. And each of us need to make our own contribution as we go forward.