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September 25, 2012

Living the High Life at the U.N.

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Tomorrow, President Obama will make his fourth address to the United Nations General Assembly.  According to tradition, the U.S. leader will follow Brazil, which will officially kick off the start of the 67th session as the first speaker of the “General Debate.” Later that week, heads of state from Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Haiti will take their turn at the podium.

Why highlight these countries? They are among a select group of 49 “least developed countries” (LDCs) that receive substantial reductions in their assessed contributions to the U.N. 
How low you ask? Currently, the minimum assessment is 0.001 percent of the organization’s regular budget. That works out to and annual assessment of $25,852 per LCD.
By contrast, the U.S. is assessed 22 percent of the regular budget--$567 million for 2012. Thus, the U.S. assessment is more than 22,000 times that of the least assessed countries.

But that’s not all. LDCs are eligible for a travel allowance to attend the General Assembly. That’s right; the U.N. budget includes $2.2 million ($1.1 million per year or about $23,000 per eligible country) to pick up the travel expenses of five people to attend the General Debate.    

All told, after credits and travel allowances are applied, about two dozen countries pay roughly $500 to $1,000 annually in U.N. dues. Other countries also benefit from the travel subsidy, but have a higher assessment. 
The idea behind this subsidy, indeed behind the incredibly low assessments of many U.N. member states, is that poor developing countries lack the financial means to send representatives the General Assembly or pay anything more than token amounts for the U.N.  Indeed, the minimum assessment has been lowered several times to allow developing countries to “meet their priorities at home.”
Unfortunately, the leaders of these “poor” countries often fail to emulate this prioritization while hobnobbing in Turtle Bay:
• President Joyce Banda of Malawi will make her first trip to the U.N. General Debate this year.  She will not be alone.  According to the Nyasa Times, a “huge delegation that has accompanied the President including traditional leaders, clerics, Members of Parliament, relatives and ruling People’s Party cohorts.” The projected cost is 308 million Malawian Kwachas (over $1 million).
• During the 2011 General Assembly, President Ernest Bai Korom of Sierra Leone occupied—12 rooms—two entire floors of the Hyatt 48Lex. The hotel internet rates shown for the week of this year’s General Debate lists rooms from $1,596 per night to the penthouse suite at $5,596 per night.
• The New York Post reported last year that Rwandan President Paul Kagame stayed in the $16,000-per-night presidential suite at the Mandarin Oriental.
• Haitian president Michel Martelly was criticized last year for skimping on official meetings, while attending private dinners and parties.
This extravagance is not unusual. The New York Post article on Kagame details other delegations’ expensive hotel stays and even more expensive shopping sprees as does one published earlier this month on the Huffington Post. Indeed, New York hotels make a killing this time of year, jacking up rates in the knowledge that nearly all of the 193 U.N. member countries will be sending high level delegations that prefer to stay in penthouses close to Turtle Bay.

But this raises some basic questions.

Is it really necessary for countries whose populations are extremely poor to send large delegations to New York at enormous expense? Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and many other U.N. member states have per capita incomes around $2 per day or less.

The Malawian government justified its trip saying it “is a rare opportunity for the president to garner support from development partners world over to assist Malawi.” Other governments similarly argue that it is really these side meetings that matter.

But must they go in person, every year? Bear in mind, these countries have diplomats permanently stationed in New York to represent them. What about video conferencing with or telephoning donors? Moreover, most bilateral and multilateral aid donors have embassies and missions in Malawi and other developing countries. Their very purpose is to meet with the government and facilitate cooperation.

Additionally, if these nations can afford tens of thousands, even millions, of dollars for penthouse suites and large entourages to go to the U.N. each fall, why do they need $23,000 in travel allowances from the U.N.?

Finally, shouldn’t it cost a nation more to belong to the U.N. than it does for them to send their president to New York City each fall for 15 minutes on the global soap box?

The vast disparity between financial obligations is a key reason why U.N. reform and budgetary restraint are so difficult. When countries pay virtually nothing into the U.N., it is little wonder that they pay scant attention when its budget increases or its programs are mismanaged.

Just a few things to ponder when you see someone haranguing the assembled leaders at the U.N. this week or get stuck in Manhattan gridlock arising from endless motorcades.

--Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

First appeared in National Review.

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