Reduction in U.S. Funding for U.N. in Budget Deal is Small Compared With Total U.S. Contribution

By Patrick Goodenough | April 14, 2011 | 4:25 AM EDT

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

( – The federal budget agreement headed for a House vote Thursday lops $304 million off the amount the administration requested for the U.S. contributions to the United Nations, but that is less than five percent of the total amount American taxpayers shelled out for the U.N. in 2009.

A measure to fund the federal government through September, hammered out late last week by President Obama and congressional leaders, provides $304 million less for the U.N. than the administration requested for fiscal year 2011 – or $377 million less than the amount enacted in fiscal year 2010.

House Republicans pressing for U.N. reform are targeting funding for the world body this year, and administration officials have described the FY 2011 reduction in U.N. contributions as “significant.”

The cut means that instead of the administration getting its requested $1.6 billion for the “contributions to international organizations” (CIO) account, it will get $1.3 billion.

While this may appear to be a substantial decrease, the CIO item forms a relatively small part of the total amount the U.S. sends to the U.N. each year.

The U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget – these are “assessed contributions,” calculated on a scale that takes into account member states’ national economic output.

Apart from the “assessed” dues, however, it also gives a lot more in “voluntary contributions,” which benefit a range of agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

Although attention on U.S. contributions to the U.N. tends to focus on what the State Department requests and gets each year, it is only one conduit of funding.

In FY 2009, the most recent year for which the data are available, the State Department was one of 19 government agencies that contributed to the U.N. system.

While the State Department accounted for the largest amount – $4.11 billion that year – the actual total was $6.34 billion, or 35 percent higher.

Those extra $2.2 billion were channeled through agencies including the U.S. Agency for International Development ($1.7 billion), the Department of Agriculture ($245 million), Health and Human Services ($132.3 million) and the Department of Energy ($54.8 million).

Other contributing departments included Commerce, Defense, Labor and Transportation.

The figures come from an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report sent to Congress in June 2010.

According to Brett Schaefer, Heritage Foundation fellow in international regulatory affairs, Congress designated the OMB as the reporting agency because lawmakers distrusted the accuracy of figures they were getting from the State Department.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2010 required the OMB to submit to Congress a report on total U.S. contributions to the U.N., and to post a public version “on a text-based searchable and publicly available Internet Web site.”

That reporting requirement expires on September 30 this year, and Schaefer says Congress should make it permanent.

Apart from the $304 million reduction for the CIO account, other areas of the FY 2011 budget agreement will impact contributions to the U.N. For example, the amount for the separate “International Organizations and Programs” account, which channels voluntary contributions to U.N. agencies, is $5 million less than the administration’s request.

Still other cuts in the measure may affect the U.N., although the exact amounts are hard to quantify.

For instance, the budget allocated for the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is $74 million less than the administration requested this fiscal year. It’s not clear whether this will have a spin-off effect on the U.N., but in FY 2009, the NRCS channeled $5 million in “voluntary” contributions to two agencies, the U.N. Commission for Sustainable Development and the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification.

Similarly, another Agriculture division, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), will get $7 million less than the administration request in FY 2011; In 2009, APHIS was the conduit for just under $128 million in “voluntary” contributions to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

‘Don’t be shy in suggesting cuts to U.N. budget’

Testifying during a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on U.N. reform last January, Schaefer noted that the $6.34 billion reported in total FY 2009 contributions was up from $3.18 billion in FY 2001.

He said increases had occurred over that period throughout the U.N. system – in the regular budget, the peacekeeping budget, other “assessed” contributions, as well as “voluntary” contributions.

“When the U.S. and other governments are being forced to tighten their belts, it is reasonable to expect the UN and its affiliated organizations to similarly scrutinize their activities to determine how to trim their budgets to emphasize priorities,” Schaefer told the committee.

“The rapid expansion of U.N. budgets over the past decade has been combined with minimal attempts at prioritization. Congress should not be shy in suggesting budgetary cuts.”

Last November the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform reported that the U.N. gets “more than $3.5 billion in ‘voluntary’ funds each year,” and recommended a reduction of 10 percent.

Schaefer in his testimony suggested that the U.S. reduce its voluntary funding by more than that – by 25 or even 50 percent, saying performing agencies should be rewarded and those with management or policy problems penalized.

Closing spigot to underperformers

The British government earlier this year announced that it was cutting funding altogether to four U.N. agencies which a review found were providing “poor value for money.”

They are the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, the Nairobi-based U.N.-Habitat, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) and U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, both in Geneva.

Britain put another three U.N. agencies on notice, warning that if they did not improve their performance “as a matter of absolute urgently,” they too would lose British funding – the Rome-based FAO, U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva.

Of those seven U.N. organizations, four received U.S. funding in FY 2009 – FAO ($125.5 million assessed, $134 million voluntary); ILO ($93.9 million assessed, $44.2 million voluntary); UNESCO ($89.5 million assessed, $1.9 million voluntary; and U.N.-Habitat ($2 million voluntary).

In its FY 2012 budget request, the administration has asked for $112 million for the FAO, $91 million for the ILO, $78.3 million for UNESCO and $1.9 million for U.N.-Habitat.

During another Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on U.N. reform, last month, Terry Miller, a former member of the U.S. Foreign Service and now director of the Center for International Trade and Economics at the Heritage Foundation, said the U.S. should follow the British example in tying U.N. funding to agencies’ performance.

“This is the type of exercise that the U.S. Government must also undertake, if it is to properly exercise its fiduciary responsibilities to the American public,” he told the committee.

“History shows that such activities have been effective only when there was strong congressional leadership and oversight.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow