US must fulfill its duty toward UN
By Xue Lei
China Daily

The White House in Washington. (Photo: IC)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, among other things, also has the unenviable job of resolving the funding crisis for the United Nations. So serious is the UN's funds crunch that it may not be able to pay the salaries of its staff in November.

The budgets for the UN and its agencies mainly come from two types of funding. Assessment contributions from member states fund the UN's major organs including the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, International Court of Justice, and the Trustee Council; and voluntary contributions from members fund relatively independent UN agencies such as the UN Development Programme, UN Food Programme and UNICEF. Assessment contributions, in turn, are of two types: regular budget and peacekeeping budget. The UN faces fund shortages in both categories.

Increasing missions, diminishing funds

Thanks to the legacies of former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the UN has become more ambitious about ending conflicts, maintaining peace, promoting development and protecting human rights, with its Sustainable Development Goals ushering in a new era of coordinated global efforts to reduce poverty, protect the natural environment, and secure the social environment. The Paris climate accord, for example, has brought the developed and developing countries together to fight climate change despite the United States pulling out of the agreement.

But since the SDGs have increased the investment and funding requirements for global development, from "billions of dollars" to "trillions of dollars", the funds needed to achieve the UN's goals and missions have multiplied. And getting the funds has become increasingly difficult due to the shifting political foundations of UN member states when it comes to supporting multilateralism and international organizations.

Although economic globalization is a major victim of rising nationalism, populism and unilateralism in the US and some European countries, a bigger problem for the UN is the changing positions of the US toward it and other multilateral bodies. As former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in October last year, during her tenure (about two years) she made the UN reduce its budget by $1.3 billion. The US has also reduced its financial support to different UN agencies; as a result, the UN's regular budget of about $5.4 billion for two years (2018-19) decreased by 5 percent from 2016-17. The UN might not be facing such a dire situation had the US paid its full contribution in time.

Lack of US' political will behind UN funds crunch

The top 20 contributors account for more than 80 percent of the UN's regular budget. Therefore, despite the data showing more than 60 member states are still to pay their dues, the UN's funds shortage is mainly related to the US not paying its contribution.

The US owes $1.05 billion to the UN regular budget, including $674 million as this year's assessment contribution, while all other major contributors, except for Brazil, have paid their dues. The US also owes $750 million to the UN peacekeeping budget. The US' accumulated arrears have made it almost impossible for the UN to continue its normal work, despite other UN members, especially China, increasing their contributions to the UN's regular budget and peacekeeping budget.

As the top financial contributor to the UN budget, the US has always complained of being "overburdened" with extra responsibilities, and has used this excuse to pressure the UN to accede to its demands and persuade other UN member states to increase their contributions. The 22 percent cap on the US' share in the UN's regular budget is the result of Washington's repeated complaints.

In fact, the US also wanted a 25 percent cap on its contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget, but its proposal was rejected because of the strong opposition from the other member states. It now accounts for a 27.88 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget.

Ironically, despite its complaints about its "high share" of the UN budget, the US has been the largest economic beneficiary of UN activities. According to American NGO Better World Campaign, a study released in August 2018 showed US companies were awarded UN contracts worth $1.74 billion in 2017-much higher than those from any other country.

Since 2010, US companies have received more than $9.5 billion worth of UN procurement contracts. And since the UN headquarters in New York has become a hub of global diplomacy and public advocacy, the various related activities have become a big source of revenue for the city. Perhaps the US should do a cost-benefit analysis to see how the UN has boosted its global status and domestic economy.

UN vital to a secure, prosperous world

Although some have criticized the UN for being plagued with bureaucracy and inefficiency, its work has been cost-efficient compared with the amount some member states' "unilateral actions" have cost. Besides, many UN-affiliated agencies have acquired a lot of special knowledge after working for years in specific fields, for instance, food aid, disaster relief, developmental aid and post-conflict rebuilding. These agencies and their staff are precious resources UN member states can use to better implement their own policies.

The fund shortage has undermined the UN's capability and tarnished its reputation as a reliable global solution provider. An immediate victim of the funding crisis is the UN's peacekeeping mission. The UN's peacekeeping budget is used, among other things, to pay compensation to the peacekeeping personnel from different countries. But due to the funds crunch, the UN has not been able to do so, which may deter these countries from taking active part in UN peacekeeping operations.

The damage the funds crisis will cause to international peacekeeping, poverty relief, disaster relief, healthcare and other humanitarian missions may not be visible in the short term, but could create bigger problems in the long run.

It's time, therefore, for major UN member states to shoulder their due responsibilities and prevent the UN from becoming irrelevant to global affairs. And as the most important founding member of the UN and the postwar world order, the US needs to take its responsibilities seriously.

History tells us that unilateralism and isolationism have served no country's purpose, including the one practicing them. As such, the US should abandon them and honor its obligation under the UN Headquarters Agreement, by providing convenient access for UN members' delegations to the US and thus the UN headquarters in New York. Of course, all UN member states should help the UN to work as an enabling platform for international cooperation and a critical vehicle to safeguard security and promote prosperity for humankind, rather than a platform for strategic competition between major powers.

The author is a researcher at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.