December 27, 2007

December 27, 2007 | Commentary on International Organizations

The UN's Metastasizing Budget

Government spending will not be curbed by wishful thinking.
- President Ronald Reagan

No Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to its own salary, the United Nations overwhelmingly gave itself a handsome 10 percent pay raise last weekend by approving its $4.2 billion '08-'09 budget.

Washington alone voted "bah, humbug." And rightly so.

Sure, it was the first time in 20 years the biennial budget for the operations of the UN's Secretariat hadn't been approved by consensus, but the budget has more bad stuff in it than your Aunt Tilley's fruitcake.

First, it contained funding for another go-around of the disgraceful 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which turned into an anti-American/Israeli confab so egregious the US delegation walked out.

The Group of 77 (G77), a caucus of developing nations that now numbers some 130 states, insisted the UN fund a follow-on conference from its regular budget rather than from voluntary contributions (as the '01 meeting was financed).

The United States rightly opposed Durban II - but that won't stop the United Nations from funding part of the '09 "review" conference from its operating budget, to the tune of nearly $7 million.

Of course, it also begs the question: Doesn't the UN have more pressing things to do with $7 million, like feed/vaccinate hungry children or assist refugees, rather than fund a conference - any conference?

In addition, the UN's budgetary process is incorporating a nonsensical "piecemeal" approach that has led some to dub the new budget as nothing more than a downpayment on a bigger bill to be foisted upon the 192 member states this spring.

For instance, the $4.2 billion budget doesn't include funding for solid programs like UNICEF and the World Health Organization. On a separate tab, UN peacekeeping is expected to jump from $5 billion to $7 billion in '08 - a 40 percent rise.

Ultimately, the budget will become a Christmas tree festooned with a string of "must haves" and pet projects, which will likely push the '08-'09 spending plan to $4.8 billion - a 25 percent jump over the '06-'07 budget.

(In the same manner, the '06-'07 UN budget grew from $3.8 billion to $4.2 billion through various add-ons appended to the originally approved base budget.)

If these add-ons materialize as expected, it will be the largest budget - and the largest increase - in UN history (with the United States responsible for the lion's share - our taxpayers pony up for 22 percent of the world body's spending).

But it gets worse.

The $4.8 billion figure doesn't take into account other unfunded but expected proposals such as a new UN HQ in Baghdad - so the budget may well swell to as much as $5.2 billion - a 35 percent rise over the last budget.

Even more frustrating, about 75 percent of the base 4.2 billion budget is for staff costs. That is, the bulk goes to pumping up the size of the UN Secretariat's swollen bureaucracy, not to humanitarian aid or development.

Meanwhile, the Secretariat undertook no significant efforts to find substantive budget "offsets" or to set priorities among the UN programs and activities.

Over the last five years, the UN's budget has grown an average 17 percent a year while the US (wartime) budget has grown just 7 percent. Over the last decade, the UN's purse has ballooned more than 190 percent.

To Washington's credit, the budget included full funding for an anti-fraud/corruption office that the United Nations (led by the G77) proposed closing - despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the unit has already exposed $600 million in financial malfeasance in the UN system.

That's right - the UN sought to shutter this office at a time when it's trying to regain some shred of credibility in fighting corruption and mismanagement, and while the office is investigating another $1 billion worth of shady UN dealings.

For years, America has pushed for zero growth in the UN budget, seeking fiscal restraint and encouraging better management and reform - which we've seen shamefully little of. Indeed, you might not mind a UN budget hike if you thought you were going to get an equal improvement in performance or return on your hard-earned tax dollars. No such luck.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in the New York Post