The price of peace and development: Paying for the UN

UN Affairs

The price of peace and development: Paying for the UN

© UNOCHA/Ayub Ahmed In 2023, the UN responded to crises across the world including floods in Somalia.

The UN is tasked with tackling many urgent issues of global importance, from humanitarian crises to peacekeeping operations and the climate crisis. This all comes at a cost, but not as much as you might think. With the 2024 budget recently approved, we crunch the numbers.

Just before Christmas, the 193 Member States that make up the UN General Assembly signed off a $3.59 billion budget to cover the expenses of the UN Secretariat in 2024. That’s a lot of money but, as UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq explained to UN News, there’s plenty of bang for each buck spent.

Farhan Haq: When you add up the regular UN Secretariat and peacekeeping budgets, the annual average cost of the UN for each person on the planet is about $1.25; that’s about the cost of a bag of chips in New York.

Aside from the U.N. Secretariat, the United Nations also comprises a vast range of agencies, funds, programmes and peacekeeping missions to deal with all kinds of issues, which are funded separately, and which are not included in the $3.59 billion budget. 

At the high end you have agencies such as the World Food Programme, the refugee agency (UNHCR) and the children’s fund (UNICEF), which have budgets in the billions of dollars. Smaller agencies deal with, for example, maritime affairs, world tourism or civil aviation, and have budgets set accordingly. Member States join and pay dues for these agencies on a voluntary basis.

Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General.

United Nations.

UN News: How are Member States’ for the UN budget dues worked out?

Farhan Haq: The amount paid is based on a complex formula that includes the size of each country’s economy [other elements include the country’s external debt, income per capital, and level of development]. The amounts range from a high of 22 per cent of the budget, paid by the United States, to 0.001 per cent, paid by the least developed countries. [Find out how much your country paid in 2023 in UN dues here]

UN News: What happens if a country doesn’t pay its UN dues?

Farhan Haq: If the amount that a country owes is equal to what they were assessed to pay for the previous two years, they lose their vote in the UN General Assembly. They don’t get that vote back unless the General Assembly makes a special decision, or they pay enough to get below the two-year threshold, so they try to avoid owing that much.

UN peacekeepers undertake night patrols in Sudan.

UNMISS/Gregório Cunha

UN News: Does the budget keep going up every year?

Obviously, because of things like inflation, the budget might increase in nominal terms, but in real terms, there are many times when the United Nations cuts on expenses so that there is no overall real growth. On the other hand, dealing with crises such as the COVID-19 epidemic can add to expenses, in which case you can see a real rise in the budget. 

UN News: With so much money changing hands, how does the UN handle fraud and waste? 

Farhan Haq: We have external and internal auditors, such as the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, that investigates allegations of internal fraud or corruption.

But the main method of oversight is ultimately through the Member States of the United Nations, which approve the annual budget and make sure that the expenses that the UN pays match up with its goals.  

The United Nations tries to use all of its money in ways that are verifiable. We have oversight at our peacekeeping operations, to ensure that all of the countries that contribute troops and equipment are reimbursed for the work that they do, and, when humanitarian aid goes out to countries, we try to put checks in place to make sure that all of the aid goes to where it is needed, and is not diverted.

UN agencies support humanitarian and peacebuilding operations around the world including in Syria (picture)

© UNICEF/Ameen Haddad

UN News: What is the cost of humanitarian operations?

Farhan Haq: In 2021 [on top of the regular budget], we appealed for an extra $3.77 billion to help 174 million people in 60 countries.

That was crucial life-saving aid, and yet we received a little less than half of that; with some appeals only between 20 or 30 per cent of our expenses are met. It really depends; with some crises, that get the most attention worldwide, we get all of the money we’re asking for. But in others that are not as visible in the news get much, much less.

Humanitarian relief falls into a few basic categories, but the main ones have to do with food, drinkable water, shelter, and different assets that can help people survive. Whether it’s mosquito nets in some countries or winter clothing in others, we try to get it to people as efficiently as possible.

We don’t see humanitarian aid as simply an expenditure. It’s an investment in people, and a sign that we’re not giving up on those who have a crucial role to play in building their own country.

We need to create a better world where people can take care of themselves. And that’s what we try to do with the money we spend; when you invest a dollar in the education of a girl, you’re investing in someone who can create a better future for herself and for her community.

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