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The UN Budget Process

Funding for the United Nations and its agencies comes from two sources: assessed and voluntary contributions. Assessed contributions are payments made as part of the obligations that nations undertake when signing treaties. At the UN, assessments on member states provide a reliable source of funding to core UN functions through the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets, based on each country’s ability to pay. Voluntary contributions are left to the discretion of each individual member state. These contributions, which make up nearly half of all UN funding, finance most of the world body’s humanitarian relief and development agencies, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program (WFP), the UN Development Program (UNDP), and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The UN Regular Budget

The UN Regular Budget finances the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat as well as the UN’s special political missions, the largest of which are the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI). The current payment structure for UN Regular Budget dues sets maximum (22%) and minimum (.001%) rates for all nations based on their ability to pay. The U.S. pays the maximum rate and has negotiated several reductions in this rate over time, most notably from 25% to 22%. The assessment rate is primarily determined by gross national product (GNP), and since the U.S. has one of the highest in the world, its dues assessments are higher than those of other Member States.

The UN uses assessed contributions to the regular budget to:

  • Facilitate elections, good governance, and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan and Iraq;
  • Investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri;
  • Monitor compliance with international sanctions regimes against Iran and North Korea;
  • Coordinate technical assistance to help countries around the world fight terrorism;
  • Create systems to protect the intellectual property

The Peacekeeping Budget

The UN’s peacekeeping budget currently finances 15 peacekeeping missions with more than 120,000 military, police, and civilian personnel deployed in conflict zones throughout the world. The UN funds its peacekeeping budget with assessments on member states similar to those made for the regular budget, but with greater discounts for poorer nations. The resulting funding deficit is compensated for by the 5 permanent members (P5) of the Security Council—the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Under this formula, the U.S. is assessed 27% of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, though an outdated and arbitrary Congressional mandate caps U.S. expenditures for peacekeeping at 25%.

Since each of the P5 nations possess veto powers over Security Council decisions, no new or expanded peacekeeping missions can advance without U.S. consent. While this unique responsibility for establishing and renewing missions means the U.S. pays a higher proportion of the bill for peacekeeping activities, the vast majority of personnel deployed on such missions come from developing countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Ghana. In addition, the GAO has shown that UN peacekeeping forces are significantly cheaper than sending in unilateral U.S. forces.

Since 1945, the United Nations has undertaken 63 field missions, helped implement 172 peaceful settlements to end regional conflicts, and enabled people in more than 45 countries to take part in free and fair elections.

Voluntary Contributions

Voluntary contributions are, as the term implies, payments left to the discretion of individual Member States. These contributions finance most of the United Nations’ humanitarian relief and development agencies. These activities help advance critical U.S. foreign policy and national security priorities and would be difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to undertake alone. Voluntary contributions from UN member states pay to:

  • Purchase U.S. agricultural products for food assistance activities;
  • Immunize children against deadly diseases like polio and measles;
  • Further nuclear energy safety and security;
  • Assist refugees in countries from Afghanistan to Sudan;
  • Tackle the AIDS pandemic.

Arrears

Arrears are a chronic problem for the United Nations. Many poorer nations cannot afford their full assessment. Other countries, notably the United States in past years, have delayed or withheld payments for reasons unrelated to their ability to pay. Under the UN Charter, member states that are two years in arrears at the UN can lose their vote in the General Assembly. Timely payment of dues is crucial because shortfalls in the UN's budget can cripple peacekeeping missions and delay humanitarian aid, with costs measured in lives and human suffering.