The United Nations might run out of cash to meet its commitments by November. The organisation is facing a US$1.7 billion shortfall because a third of its member states are in arrears with their annual contributions to the UN budget.
As a consequence, it has been unable to fill some of its vacant positions. It faces the prospect of having to make cuts to its expenditure and scale back on the activities it is currently involved in.
These financial problems are not new. The challenge of adequately funding the UN has been a long-running saga which can be traced back to its early years. The term ‘financial crisis’ has been applied to the UN in discussions dating back to the 1960s.
But the financial crisis became particularly dire in the 1990s. This period coincided with a huge expansion in UN peacekeeping activities, necessitated by the explosion of internal conflicts around the world at that time. The activities were made possible by a new-found cooperation between the major powers. This saw a decline in their use of vetoes within the Security Council. The increase in peacekeeping placed greater financial strain on the UN.
Its debts reached US$2.3 billion as America’s arrears mounted. At the time, the United States (US) was the biggest budget contributor to the UN despite the fact that its contribution was a tiny share of its federal domestic spending. While the situation improved somewhat into the millennium, the financial well-being of the organisation has remained heavily contingent upon the US’ compliance with its budgetary obligations.
The US has remained the biggest contributor to the UN, currently carrying 22% of the general budget, and has continuously sought to use that as leverage to extract concessions from the world body. It has managed to negotiate a reduction in its contribution, while at the same time pushing for efficiency reforms and cost-cutting measures within the organisation.
As the years have gone by, a situation where a significant number of member states are in arrears with their assessed contributions to the UN budget has become the norm rather than an exception. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of members individually contribute less than 1% of the total budget. The UN budget is set by the General Assembly, which is also responsible for determining the proportion of the burden to be borne by each member state. These assessments take into account the economic capacity of every state.
While most states may pay up on time, if the US is not fully paid up the effects can be catastrophic because most of the deficit can be attributed to it defaulting. Various critical programmes have been axed or reduced due to these financial constraints, most recently the UN’s humanitarian programmes in Yemen.
Money for peacekeeping
The UN has a separate peacekeeping budget in addition to its operational costs. The US contributes an even larger share to that kitty (28%).
So, understanding the UN’s financial woes requires an appreciation of the strain which peacekeeping places on its overall budget, and the unique ability of the US to influence the world body’s capacity to function.
Peacekeeping represents the UN’s biggest cost, as well as being its most prominent and robust activity within the peace and security arena. The current peacekeeping budget is US$6.5 billion a year, about US$1 billion more than the UN’s overall costs.
The effects of a significant shortfall in funding for peacekeeping should be of great concern. To undermine peacekeeping is to undermine the preservation of peace itself, particularly in light of the UN’s increased role in protecting civilians against the worst effects of conflict.
Cuts to peacekeeping will likely prove more harmful to the African continent than any other single region. Large budgetary cuts during 2017 fell heavily on the operations deployed within Darfur, with other African missions also affected. The UN has 13 active peacekeeping operations and seven of these are in Africa. African nations provide nearly half of the peacekeepers deployed worldwide, including almost two thirds of all women peacekeepers, and the majority of UN police officers.
Current operations are deployed in Western Sahara, Darfur, Abyei, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, and DR Congo. With the exception of the mission in Western Sahara, these are all sizeable operations consisting of thousands of personnel. Indeed, a majority comprise between 15 000 and 20 000 personnel, underlining the huge contribution to the promotion of peace and security in the region. Most of these operations have been deployed for several years.
The current UN financial crisis can be mitigated if member states pay their dues but it is difficult to imagine it disappearing completely. There will always be a danger that shortfalls in funding will compromise some of its most important activities. For that reason, regional bodies would be well advised to continue to develop their own capacities to act in response to crises which arise within their regions.
African states, through the African Union and regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States, have made great efforts to strengthen the capacity of local actors to tackle problems arising close to home. Given the uncertain state of UN finances moving forward, this can only be a good thing.
While the UN has been forever plagued by financial problems, the fact remains that it needs to be placed on a sounder footing if it is to properly discharge its responsibilities. Its remit to maintain or restore international peace and security essentially means that its financial needs are endless.
There is always something more it can do, another initiative it can launch to address this or that problem. While there is some scope to trim some of its expensive bureaucratic activities, these are relatively low cost already. Therefore, member states, and the US in particular, must commit to supporting its budget.