Sharing the costs and the benefits at the UN

The new order is our chance to keep up in fast changing world, wrote former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, in an op-ed The Times of London. He laid out some far-reaching ideas on the international system. Here we comment on one of them, that is, his proposal to move from assessed to fully voluntary funding at the United Nations.

To most of the world outside New York, these terms will be obscure. In very simple terms, the UN's assessed budget essentially works like tax for national taxpayers - there is an assessment that has to be paid - while voluntary funding is like giving to charities you like. It might seem appealing to ask why all funding to the UN is not in the latter category. But there are two key reasons why this would have enormous global risks.

Firstly, increasing the risk of graft and bias in intergovernmental discussions. One thing the assessed budget pays for is the working costs of UN committees, their secretariats. If one country entirely funded the work of one committee instead of it being shared, or if private organisations or companies were allowed to fund this work, suspicions would obviously rise that the agenda of that committee was being set by one country or interest group. It would be akin to saying that the secretariat functions of Senate or House committees could be financed by one political party or by business. In an era where President-elect Trump has committed to cleaning up Washington, that would not be consistent - nor is it in international negotiations.

Secondly, the assessed budget also pays for a lot of what are sometimes called "global goods" - issues no one country alone can address, where neutrality is needed. Examples are action on pandemics, research on climate change, global statistics, human rights standards, and international peacekeeping. Here too, if funding was allowed to be dominated by one country or a group of countries rather than shared, there would be great risks of a lack of trust in the neutrality of the work produced. That is why the UN's founders, including the United States, agreed on a way to share the UN's financing in some of these core and most sensitive functions.

This is not to say there are no problems with the functioning of the UN's budget - there are, and most countries want to see the UN better aligned with new international challenges. But careful engagement is needed on how to do that, keeping in mind the key principle that shared funding is part of maintaining trust in international decision making. In an era where the UN has delivered real successes in the last year that can affect future generations around the world, such as the Paris agreement on climate change and the sustainable development goals, that neutrality is crucial.

Sarah Cliffe is the Director of the Center on International Cooperation. 

For related commentary on this issue see other articles by CIC Director Sarah Cliffe

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Nov 16, 2016
Sarah Cliffe
United Nations