No More Gravy Train for the United Nations

Trump administration contemplates 50% reduction in U.S. funding.

Bureaucrats and diplomats at the United Nations are scrambling to adjust to the new Trump administration. One thing seems certain. The Obama days of wine and roses for the UN are over. The Trump administration is reportedly laying the groundwork for cuts of at least 50% to U.S. funding for United Nations programs. U.S. diplomats warned key UN member states  to “expect a big financial restraint” on American spending at the UN at a meeting earlier this month in New York City, according to sources cited by Foreign Policy

The United States spent nearly $10 billion in total on the United Nations in 2015 alone, based on available data. This includes U.S. payment of 22 % of the UN’s regular budget and about 28.5% of its peacekeeping budget, which together add up to over $3 billion annually. The U.S. has contributed billions of dollars more in voluntary donations to various UN agencies, programs and flash humanitarian appeals. Based on available 2015 data, cutting just the U.S. voluntary contributions by 40 % would save about $2.7 billion a year.

It has been estimated that the U.S.’s mandatory assessment for funding of the UN’s regular budget is more than that of 176 other UN member states combined. The 56 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are estimated to have constituted approximately 8.6% of global production in 2015. However, they only paid 5.6% of the UN’s regular budget and 2.4% of the UN’s peacekeeping budget.

United Nations mandatory assessed budget funding is based on the socialist formula of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The starting point is to calculate each member state’s mandatory budget assessments based on the proportion of each member state’s gross national product in comparison to the global gross national product. However, that is only the starting point. Many “less developed” nations’ assessments are then adjusted downward through manipulative concessions such as a debt burden discount and a low per capita income discount. Wealthier nations find themselves having to make up the shortfalls.

The United States is bearing an unfair burden in the funding of the United Nations. Yet the U.S. has only one vote out of 193 member states in the General Assembly when it comes to approval of the final budget for which it pays the lion’s share. This redistributionist practice must end and give way to more equitable sharing of mandatory assessments so that all member states have some real skin in the game.

The UN is also way overdue for a major overhaul, including significant cuts in its bloated budgets.For example, UN bureaucrats based in New York have been receiving net remuneration (i.e., take-home salary) at a level about 25% higher than that of their U.S. equivalents, according to the International Civil Service Commission.  There are highly generous benefits that the UN provides its staff on top of that. UN salaries and benefits need to be frozen, or even rolled back, to eliminate any differential that still remains with what comparable U.S. civil servants receive, as a condition for continued U.S. funding. 

The UN’s aid agencies are cumbersome and non-transparent. One independent study published a few years ago concluded that “many of the UN agencies have an extremely bad record on transparency” and are “among the least accountable aid agencies.” UN agencies also carry heavy overhead costs, which reduce the amount of contributions from donor countries going directly to those who need the assistance. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and United Nations Population Fund “actually spend more on administrative costs than aid disbursements (129% and 125%, respectively),” according to the study. The UNDP also has the highest salary/aid ratio at 100 percent. Perhaps for that reason, the UNDP’s transparency record is particularly bad.

The United States in 2015 contributed $266 million to UNDP funding, out of which it made $74,500,000 in voluntary contributions without any specific direction as to how the money should be spent. At minimum, the Trump administration should eliminate this unspecified voluntary contribution until the UNDP can prove to U.S. auditors that it is in full compliance with U.S. government transparency requirements and that the UNDP has sharply reduced its overhead costs.

There are some other UN budget items that the Trump administration should put on the chopping block for cutting U.S. contributions right away.

For example, the United States is presently contributing more than $340 million a year to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). In 2015, the U.S. made $158,600,059 in voluntary contributions to UNRWA without any specific direction as to how the money should be spent. Since UNRWA’s establishment in 1948, the U.S. has spent approximately $5 billion propping up what was supposed to be an agency for temporary relief until the original refugees leaving Israel after it declared its independence could be resettled in neighboring countries.

Today, while the U.S. throws more good money after bad, UNRWA hires terrorists, teaches hate against Jews in the schools it runs, and perpetuates a permanent refugee status for millions of Palestinian descendants whom UNRWA would still consider refugees even after an independent Palestinian state is established within which they can live. Continued U.S. funding of UNRWA should be put on the chopping block for major cutting, if not elimination altogether.

The Trump administration should also reverse the Obama administration’s decision to join and fund the dysfunctional UN Human Rights Council. This travesty counts some of the world’s worst human rights abusers as its members, while it spends much of its time and resources hounding Israel. The 2016-2017 estimated budget for the Human Rights Council alone is over $43 million. The State Department should be directed to withhold from the U.S. contribution to the regular budget of the UN an amount equal to the amount that would be allocated for the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has on more than one occasion attacked President Trump for pursuing policies resulting in what he recklessly claimed were human rights abuses and violations of international law. In 2016 alone, the U.S. made a voluntary contribution of $17,439,877 towards funding the budget of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This should not be repeated while Zeid al-Hussein remains in charge. 

In 2015, the United States made $150,300,000 in voluntary contributions to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) without any specific direction as to how the money should be spent. The UN’s own Internal Audit Division found virtually no oversight of usage of funds that have been given to UNHRC’s various partners. The U.S. voluntary contributions for unspecified purposes is far larger than any other country. It should be pared way back, pending a complete examination and approval of the UN’s refugee vetting program and UNHRC’s oversight mechanisms. 

Starting in 2020, the more “developed” countries, including the United States, are supposed to contribute collectively $100 billion a year to a UN Climate Fund. The U.S. could find itself paying about $22 billion a year into this unaccountable UN fund, if a formula similar to that used to calculate the U.S.’s regular UN budget assessment is utilized. As one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama pledged half a billion dollars to the UN climate fund as sort of a down payment. The Trump administration should cancel Obama’s pledge and make it clear that the U.S. has no intention of contributing the many billions of dollars the UN will be looking for from the United States starting three years from now.

The UN’s peacekeeping operations need a thorough review and reform from top to bottom. As Ambassador Haley said during her confirmation hearings, “It’s been devastating to see the exploitation, the fraud, abuse that’s happening,” referring to the fact that peacekeeping troops sexually abused the very people they were sent to protect and have been getting away with it. 

2014 report by the UN’s own Office of Internal Oversight Services found a “persistent pattern of peacekeeping operations not intervening with force when civilians are under attack.” Little has changed since the report was issued, as evidenced by UN peacekeepers in South Sudan doing nothing to stop South Sudanese troops from attacking civilians last year.

Whistleblowers have been silenced. Mid-level people have been scapegoated, while senior management has been shielded from any real accountability. 

The UN General Assembly approved $7.86 billion for 15 peacekeeping operations for the 20162017 fiscal period. The U.S. is paying 28.57% of that budget. The U.S. assessments have kept creeping up, with waivers of previous caps set by Congress. Enforcing a previously set cap of 25%.would save U.S. taxpayers many millions of dollars. Moreover, the United States should refuse to agree to the creation of new, or expansion of existing, UN peacekeeping operations until the Department of State can verify that peacekeeping reforms specified by the U.S. have been adopted by the UN General Assembly and Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

Virtually nothing the U.S. pays for at the UN should be off the table for re-examination and potential cutting. It is time to end business as usual at the United Nations, even if some sacred cows are sacrificed in the process.