Will Member States Help Offset US Funding Cuts to UN?

The UN General Assembly will decide on any proposed cuts on US assessed contributions to the UN. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 5 2018 (IPS)

The speculation that the Trump administration plans to reduce its mandatory assessed financial contributions to the UN’s regular budget was implicitly confirmed when the US president told delegates last September that Washington “is working to shift more of our funding, from assessed contributions to voluntary contributions, so that we can target American resources to the programs with the best record of success.”

Any such reduction in the scale of assessment – which is based on each country’s “capacity to pay” — will not only undergo a long-drawn-out negotiating process but will also have a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of the world body.

But that resolution may be adopted by the 193-member General Assembly if the US resorts to strong-arm tactics — as US Ambassador Nikki Haley once threatened to “take down names” and cut American aid to countries that voted for a resolution condemning US recognition of Jerusalem as the new Israeli capital.

At a press conference announcing her decision to step down as US ambassador to the UN, Haley told reporters last October that that during her two year tenure “we cut $1.3 billion in the UN’s budget. We’ve made it stronger. We’ve made it more efficient.”

At the same time, the US has slashed its contribution to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) , from $69 million in 2016 to zero in 2017, and cut $300 million in funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), aiding Palestinian refugees.

The US, which pulled out of the Human Rights Council last June, has also threatened to “defund” the Geneva-based Council.

Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, told IPS the Trump administration’s recent threats to cut funding for and cooperation with the UN undercut the world’s most important mechanism for reducing the risk of conflict, addressing acute humanitarian needs and building a better, safer world.

“Cutting US contributions not only undermines the effort to prevent conflict and end poverty; it limits the ability of the US to make it better and revitalize it to meet today’s challenges,” he pointed out.

Paul said responses to forgotten crises like the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are both less than 50% funded, “and we will likely see major humanitarian crises even less funded than they are right now”.

“With less reliable funding, when new crises emerge in the future, there will less capacity to respond to help the world’s most vulnerable people survive and live with dignity”.

“We hope other countries will step up to save lives in humanitarian crises, but the US is leaving a big gap to fill, and families caught in crisis will pay the price,” declared Paul.

However, the proposed reduction in assessed contributions by the US has to be approved by the UN’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee (the Fifth Committee), the Committee on Contributions and finally endorsed by the General Assembly.

Currently, the US makes the largest single contribution, paying 22 percent of the UN’s regular budget, which also give the US plenty of financial clout not only to demand some of the highest ranking jobs in the world body but also dominate discussions on the biennial budget, which is estimated at $5.4 billion for 2018-2019.

Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and one-time President of the Security Council, told IPS that to have an agreement on reducing the scale approved by the General Assembly is a very complex and complicated process.

The proposal to reduce the scale by a country, particularly with a sizeable contribution, like the US, would mean increase in the contribution of other countries as the scale for all countries together adds up to 100 percentile points.

“It is a zero-sum situation,” he added.

According to this formula, besides the 22% contribution by the US, the percentage for the other major contributors include: Japan 9.7 %, China 7.9%, Germany 6.4%, France 4.9 %, UK 4.5%, Italy 3.7% and Russia 3.1%.
The poorest countries of the world pay 0.001% of the UN budget, whereas the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), described as the poorest of the poor, have a cap of 0.01% each.

Ambassador Chowdhury pointed out that a Member State proposing reduction needs to go through a painstaking and arduous process of bargain-laden negotiating process. It needs consistency, expertise and collegiality in going through the process till its objective of reduction in the scale is achieved.

Very importantly, he noted, the Permanent Representative of that Member State needs to be personally involved and lead the process throughout.

“The whole scenario for this unfolds as a Fifth Committee exercise at the UN – but also at the bilateral/regional levels for influencing that exercise. This is a tall order.”

The last time such an exercise was undertaken for the reduction of the US scale, from 25 percent to 22.5 percent, Ambassador Chowdhury was very closely following that process, as US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was leading that effort on behalf of his country “in a masterful way using all kinds of avenues and leverages available to him.”

“That kind of tenacity, perseverance, skillful diplomatic maneuvers and personal relationship built with many of his counterparts from other nations at UN during his tenure is a rare combination.”

“As I was chairing the Fifth Committee in 1997-98 during the 52nd UN General Assembly session– and the scale of assessment and the biennium budget were both on the agenda– Richard kept in regular touch and sought clarification from me on many related issues.”

“That gave me an insight into the way his patient step-by-step strategy was bringing him close to his objective and finally, it was achieved without much acrimony and hard feeling,” Ambassador Chowdhury added.

At a press conference last October, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres– in response to a question on proposed US funding cuts– told reporters: “Until now, the United States has not put into question the assessed contributions to the United Nations”.

He said there have been decisions to withdraw support from different agencies whose work is not agreed by the United States, but there has not been a disruption of the funding from the assessed contributions, both for the normal function of the Secretariat and of peacekeeping.

“And, of course, we are doing everything we can in order to make sure that we can overcome the difficulties that have happened in relations to agencies like UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency] or UNFPA [UN Population Fund] that we consider to have a very important function that needs to be maintained,” he added.

Meanwhile, US National Security Adviser John Bolton rejected the argument that Washington will not be able to cut funding to the Human Rights Council because the Council’s operating expenses are funded through assessed contributions.

In an interview with Associated Press (AP), Bolton was quoted as saying: “We’ll calculate 22 percent of the Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner’s budget, and our remittances to the UN for this budget year will be less 22 percent of those costs — and we’ll say specifically that’s what we’re doing.”

Ambassador Chowdhury told IPS that another important element in his scale-reduction strategy by Holbrooke was a carrot –- namely paying up of all US arrears to UN amounting to $300 million plus, blocked by US Senator Jesse Helms as Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“That was also a considerable inducement.”

“In this context, I would say that it is nothing new for the UN to suffer due to US actions for not paying the assessed annual contribution on time, withholding part of the contribution on some excuse, proposing the reduction of the scale (in fact. since UN founding, US scale has come down from 30 percent to current 22 percent) etc.”

“I believe it would be smart on the part of the general UN membership and UN’s Senior Management leadership not to succumb to such eventualities as the US decides to lessen its multilateral engagements.”

“Yes, I agree that on time, in full and without condition payment of assessed contribution is a Charter obligation. But UN has not done anything to enforce this obligation.”

He said “contribution or absence of it” by the largest payer and the host country of UN should not have a negative impact on the policy direction and activities of the world body.

The UN needs to internalize the culture of doing more with less – motivation and inspiration to be of service to humanity should not be dependent on availability of “funds” only, he declared.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org