UN Funding Increases, But Falls Short of Global Tasks

Governments have tasked the United Nations with a growing number of global mandates, but they have provided it with very few resources to carry out the work. U.N. funding is minuscule in contrast with that of other public bodies. The regular budget of the organization—$2.2 billion in 2011—is less than the total annual spending of the Tokyo Fire Department.1 The United Nations’ host city, New York, had a 2011 budget of $66 billion, about 30 times bigger than U.N. core outlays.2 The small U.N. budget is striking in view of the multiplying global crises that need commonly decided international solutions—including climate change, financial instability, resource limits, transborder disease, and poverty.

The U.N. core “regular” budget, funded by mandatory national assessments, covers many different costs—meeting expenses, staff salaries, building maintenance, travel, security, conflict mediation, development initiatives, human rights activities, and much more. That budget is down from a peak of $2.5 billion in 2009.3 In nominal terms, it has grown almost 14-fold over the past four decades, from $157 million in 19714 (See Figure 1). When adjusted for inflation, however, the increase is just threefold.5 This is not nearly enough to keep up with the organization’s expanded membership, which stood at 132 in 1971 and is now at 193, or with multiplying program mandates.6 The upsurge in the past decade was preceded by flat or negative trends in constant-dollar terms during much of the 1980s and 1990s, when hostility or indifference toward the United Nations in Washington provided little opportunity for budget growth.7 

UN Funding Figure 1

Beyond the core U.N. budget is the much larger peacekeeping budget, also financed through mandatory national assessments. These assessments include a premium paid by the five permanent Security Council members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.8 The peacekeeping budget rises and falls according to the number and size of missions mandated by the Security Council. These missions rose steadily from 2001 to 2010, leading to considerable cost increases, as the United Nations deployed troops, police, and other peacekeeping personnel in more than a dozen crisis zones. In the budget year that spans 2011–12, the peacekeeping outlay was $7.84 billion, an expenditure that sustained more than 100,000 personnel in the field as well as logistics, equipment, and headquarters staff.9 But by comparison, individual states’ military spending in 2010 (the most recent year for which estimates are available), was $1,630 billion—about 208 times larger.10 Governments also field about 200 times as many soldiers as there are U.N. peacekeepers.11


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