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Consequences of the Trump budget cuts for the United Nations

Today, the scale of the budget cuts of the Trump administration to the United Nations system has been officially announced; and this could be massive. According to various reports – Foreign PolicyWashington Post, IRIN News (great visuals!), CBS NewsUN Dispatch, PassBlue, Al Jazeera  – up to 37% of the current US contributions to the UN cut be cut. This will hit in particular where the US makes voluntary contributions, but there is also the announcement to reduce the US’ assessed share on UN peacekeeping from 28% to 25%.

After having spent my last two years researching UN budgeting, I can only begin to estimate the repercussions that this will have for the UN system. But, in view of what we know about the past and about the present, this does not look very good for the UN system.

Erin R. Graham, probably the single most important academic expert on the financing  of the UN system, especially the role of voluntary contributions, has recently provided a detailed analysis on this questions over at the Monkey Cage Blog of the Washington Post.  Among other things, she predicts that cutting funding to the UN system would seriously undermine the US’ influence on global policy-making. But that’s just one (quite realistic) perspective on the upcoming cuts.

Looking at the figures that Ben Parker over at IRIN News has put out there, the cuts must come from those UN organizations who receive significant US funding through voluntary contributions such as the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) or the World Food Programme (WFP) to which the US is a major contributor and which are, in essence, financed from Voluntary Contributions. This means that many citizens in the most difficult of situations around the world will be affected by the cuts. This is not just about some unknown international bureaucrats in New York and Geneva.

Now, for those of you who do not follow UN affairs on a daily basis, it is important to understand the scale of voluntary member state contributions in the UN system. According to a recent report by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, only about 29% of the whole UN system revenue came from what is called “assessed contributions“, basically mandatory membership fees countries pay according to a complicated scale that roughly corresponds to the economic power of member states. In other words, the majority of UN funding comes in some form of (unspecified or earmarked) voluntary contributions. States can easily withhold or stop paying these, and most of this funding goes into operational activities “on the ground”.

In a 2015 paper on UN budgeting we presented to discuss our ongoing research on UN budgeting with colleagues at the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), we showed how important voluntary contributions are for most of the UN system organizations (see below). All bodies with close to 100% voluntary funding are mainly operational agencies, not UN bodies that develop and monitor international treaties. They are, as far as one can make this comparison, the equivalent to social service agencies at national level.

UN Voluntary Contributions by Organization

Cutting voluntary funds is relatively easy, but it is also possible to cut assessed funding. The US has already demonstrated, for example in the case of UNESCO, that it is  ready to stop paying its assessed contributions together with all voluntary contributions if it wants to. The fact that the US already announces to cut its share in assessed contributions to peacekeeping operations of the UN from 28% to 25% is a clear sign that they are read to go this route. Other member states of the UN will not be happy.

What are the expected consequences from all this?

A conference paper on UNESCO’s budget crises we presented  at the International Political Science Association (IPSA) conference last year outlines the devastating consequences of major budget cuts as a reaction to the US stopping to provide all funding to the organization. To extrapolate some of the lessons from that research on UNESCO:

In each UN organization where this type of massive cut happens (in the UN case this was about a quarter of the overall budget) , the chances are high that this will leave the organization in limbo for several years.

Massive budget cuts will force  directors-general and other leaders of UN organizations to spend a lot of their precious time to fundraise for new voluntary resources to cover immediate costs. While the leadership is busy doing this, the rest of the organization – member states and international officials – have to waste months in reprioritizing the global work of their organization in line with available funding, implement staff  and operational activity cuts, and in reorganizing internal structures to make them workable under the new financial situation. This means insecurity, internal fights over resources, and a lot of internal and external consultation, little of which has any positive external effects.

In other words, significant cuts by the US will not only affect what UNHCR can give to refugees or what the WFP can provide in food for those in need, it will also affect the work of these organizations overall. These cuts could potentially disrupt key operations for years, divert attention for months. They will require endless useless meetings between member states and international officials to discuss how to adapt the organizations to the cuts instead of spending this time for the actual mission of these organizations.

This will distract many UN organizations’ attention from supporting peace, from providing food and shelter, from supporting development operations, or from ensuring research on and mitigation of climate change.

Given that UN member states can hardly agree on major changes in good times (due to complex principal constellations), it will depend on good leadership by the heads of the UN agencies and bodies to manage this situation to the best of interest of the global community and of affected citizens around the world. In the best of cases, other countries will step in to fill some of the gaps left by the US, but this will still take time and lead to many new discussion.

My guess is that, should the budget cuts be implemented as announced, this could be the beginning of a major shakeup of the UN system – and not in a good way. The rest of the world and the leaders of UN organizations better get ready for this, and learn from situations like we have seen in UNESCO.

Some editorial changes have been made to this post, including additional links to news articles about the cuts.

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