UN Responsibilities Far Outstrip Funding

Photo credit: United Nations

The United Nations’ core budget in 2011 was US$2.2 billion, down from a peak of $2.5 billion in 2009 and miniscule compared to the $66 billion budget of the UN’s host city, New York. The funds available to the key international organization have not kept pace with the expansion of the UN’s duties since its founding in 1945, according to a new report published by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online publication.

The report reveals a disconcerting shift in the sources of UN funding. The level of voluntary contributions from the organization’s wealthier member nations, including the United States, Germany, and Japan, is growing, helping to fund the core budget and various UN agencies and programs. Yet mandatory payments from all member nations are lagging: they account for just 14–18 percent of UN funds, down from 20–25 percent during the 1970s through 1990s. In effect, wealthier nations use their financial leverage to sidestep the regular UN decision making process, the report notes.

The shift away from mandatory payments and toward voluntary contributions reflects the rich member nations’ preference for agenda-setting through bilateral pressure, rather than democratic voting. In this way, UN finance is increasingly a reflection of a world divided between countries of vastly different resources, priorities, and global aspirations.

The report finds that private sources, including foundations and businesses, are increasingly funding UN operations. Many governments and experts are critical of this trend because they claim that private funding introduces external influences over the organization’s regular governance process.

The UN’s core or “regular” budget, which covers ongoing costs like staff salaries, meeting expenses, travel, security, conflict mediation, and human rights activities, among other tasks, is funded entirely by mandatory national payments. In 1971, this budget was $157 million, and it has grown almost 14-fold since then in nominal terms. But in real terms (i.e., when adjusted for inflation), the budget has grown only threefold—not nearly enough to keep up with multiplying program mandates and the complexities that accompany a much-expanded membership, according to the report.

Beyond the “regular” UN budget are the much larger peacekeeping budget and specialized agency budgets. In the 2011–12 budget year, the UN peacekeeping budget was $7.8 billion. Funding for specialized UN programs and agencies like the World Health Organization, the Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Development Programme totaled about $20 billion in 2011. In total, the UN system’s in 2011 amounted to about $30 billion.

Further highlights from the report:

  • UN member states’ individual military spending in 2010 totaled $1.6 trillion, more than 200 times the UN’s current annual peacekeeping spending of $7.8 billion.
  • The poorer UN states, voting in the G-77 bloc, favor more UN activity in the social and economic field, while the rich countries generally prefer an emphasis on peacekeeping.
  • In part because of budgetary shortcomings, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has failed to establish a strong international presence since its 1972 founding: in 2010, UNEP received just over $205 million, less than 1 percent of total UN funding.
  • At the end of May 2011, the United States owed the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets a total of $1.3 billion in arrears, or 42 percent of the total for all member states.

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