November 9, 2015 | Issue Brief on United Nations
Salaries, benefits, and allowances of United Nations professional and higher level staff have risen sharply over the past decade in comparison with equivalent positions in the United States federal civil service. U.N. salaries are supposed to be based on those of equivalent civil servants, but are actually more generous than the salaries that member states, including the U.S., pay to their own civil servants.
Personnel costs—including salaries—comprise approximately three-quarters of the U.N. regular budget and the budgets of many other U.N. organizations. Because many major contributors are facing domestic fiscal constraints, they have been reluctant to support increased U.N. budgets. As a result, increases in U.N. salaries are beginning to create budgetary strains, eliciting concern from some of these organizations. To address these issues, the U.S. should urge the General Assembly to support the recent recommendations by the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) to reduce U.N. salaries, allowances, and benefits; propose salary cuts for Assistant Secretary-Generals (ASGs) and Under Secretary-Generals (USGs); and endorse freezing salaries until U.N. net remuneration falls to match that of the U.S. federal civil service.
In order to attract and retain qualified staff, the U.N. has long operated under the Noblemaire principle, which states that professional staff salaries should be determined by those of the civil service of the member state with the highest civil service pay levels. Since the U.N. was founded, this has been the U.S.
U.N. professional categories, however, do not align neatly with U.S. civil service grades. To address this, most of the U.N. system relies on the ICSC to calculate equivalencies between the two as a basis for determining salaries. Once base salaries are established, the ICSC determines cost-of-living adjustments to the base salaries to arrive at a final salary. According to the ICSC, U.N. net remuneration (gross salary minus deductions) significantly exceeds that of the U.S. equivalent:
In addition, U.N. employees enjoy generous benefits and allowances matching or exceeding equivalent U.S. benefits as detailed in a June 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Overall, U.S. civil servants serving overseas enjoy many similar benefits and allowances to those provided by the U.N., including housing and education allowances. In key areas, however, U.N. employees enjoy significantly more generous benefits, including more annual leave and paid maternity and paternity leave. Moreover, as the GAO noted in a 2013 report, only about 2 percent of U.S. civil service employees actually serve overseas and receive special allowances, while a large portion of U.N. employees receive them.
In addition, the U.N. provides unique allowances, such as support for dependents and a repatriation grant, not available to U.S. equivalents. The number of U.N. employees receiving these unique benefits exceeds the number of U.S. civil servants receiving the lone unique U.S. benefit not provided to U.N. employees (student loan repayment) and the value of the U.N. benefits is far more.
The ICSC operates under an instruction from resolution 40/244 adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1985 to maintain U.N. net remuneration between 110 percent and 120 percent higher than the U.S. equivalent with the goal of maintaining a five-year average of 115 percent. However, increases in U.N. salaries have exceeded that of U.S.-equivalent civil servants in recent years and U.N. salaries in New York are now near the top of the 110 percent to 120 percent range.
The cost of U.N. salaries, allowances, and benefits has risen as a share of the budgets of many U.N. organizations, generating concern about the effect on their activities. As noted by the Government Accountability Office,
Staff-related expenditures rose steadily from $1.95 billion in 2002–2003 to $2.98 billion in 2010–2011, the most recent period for which data were available, at an average rate of about 7 percent per 2-year budget, when adjusted for inflation. Concerns about the level of total compensation costs and long-term sustainability have been raised by the Secretary-General, General Assembly, member states, and other UN organizations.
Some specific examples of concerns raised by U.N. organizations include:
These concerns led the General Assembly to request the ICSC to recommend changes to the U.N. compensation structure. This request came in addition to previous initiatives like temporary pay freezes and increasing the U.N. retirement age from 62 to 65. In response, the 2015 ICSC report recommends significant changes:
The ICSC projects that these changes would result in $113.2 million in savings. The U.N. staff unions have objected strongly to these changes. In particular, they have criticized cuts to professional staff compensation. Although their opposition to these recommendations is understandable, the bottom line is that U.N. budget expenses for salary, benefits, and allowances need to be constrained.
The General Assembly will consider the ICSC recommendations this fall. During this consideration, the U.S. should:
Governments around the world need to adopt measures that meet budgetary necessity. As a composite of the world’s nations, the U.N. should not be insulated from this reality. Increasing staff costs have strained budgets across the U.N. system and the General Assembly should not shy away from adopting steps necessary to address this situation.—Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.
 Fifteen organizations accepted the statute of the Commission and participate in the United Nations common system of salaries and allowances: the U.N., the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and the International Seabed Authority. Although it has not accepted the statute, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) also participates in the common system of salaries and allowances. United Nations, “Report of the International Civil Service Commission for the Year 2013,” A/68/30, p. 1, http://icsc.un.org/resources/pdfs/ar/AR2013.pdf (accessed November 6, 2015).
 United Nations, “Report of the International Civil Service Commission for the Year 2015,” Annex V, p. 137, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/70/30 (accessed November 6, 2015).
 U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “2015 General Schedule (GS) Locality Pay Tables,” https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/2015/general-schedule/ (accessed November 6, 2015).
 Government Accountability Office, “Key Compensation Elements Should Be Reviewed to Address Costs and Sustainability,” GAO-14-546, June 26, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664437.pdf (accessed November 6, 2015).
 Government Accountability Office, “Key Compensation Elements Should Be Reviewed to Address Costs and Sustainability,” Appendix IV: Leave Benefits.
 Government Accountability Office, “UN Compensation: United Nations Should Clarify the Process and Assumptions Underlying Secretariat Professional Salaries,” GAO-13-526, May 29, 2013, p. 30, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-13-526 (accessed November 6, 2015).
 Government Accountability Office, “Key Compensation Elements Should Be Reviewed to Address Costs and Sustainability,” p. 17.
 Ibid. p. 19.
 Food and Agricultural Organization, “Resolution 7/2013: Budgetary Appropriations 2014-15,” adopted June 22, 2013, paragraph 4, http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/017/MH093E/MH093E01.htm#Resolution7 (accessed November 6, 2015).
 World Intellectual Property Organization, “Summary of Decisions and Recommendations made by the Program and Budget Committee at its Twenty-First Session (September 9 to 13, 2013),” September 23 to October 2, 2013, Agenda Item 11, p. 4, http://www.wipo.int/edocs/mdocs/govbody/en/a_51/a_51_14.docx (accessed November 6, 2015).
 International Maritime Organization, “Summary of Decisions,” C 110/D, July 29, 2013, paragraph 4(a).4 cited in United Nations, “Report of the International Civil Service Commission for the Year 2013,” p. 5, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/70/30 (accessed November 6, 2015).
 Council of Administration, “Report by the Chair of Committee 2 (Finance and Administration),” Universal Postal Union CA 2013.2-Doc 8, November 14, 2013, http://documents.upu.int/Bodies/2013/CA/CA%20PLEN/MEETING/CA%20PLEN%202013.2/Doc%208/EN/ca_plen-2_d008.pdf (accessed November 6, 2015).
 Executive Board, “Confirmation of Amendments to the Staff Rules,” World Health Organization document EB134.R11, January 24, 2014, http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/173016/1/B134_R11-en.pdf?ua=1 (accessed November 6, 2015).
 U.N. General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/253, January 24, 2014, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/68/253 (accessed November 6, 2015).
 United Nations, “Report of the International Civil Service Commission for the Year 2015,” Table 14, pp. 119–120.
 Thalif Deen, “U.N. Staffers Protest Proposed Pay Cuts For Some, Increases for Others,” Inter Press Service, October 13, 2015, http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/10/u-n-staffers-protest-proposed-pay-cuts-for-some-increases-for-others/ (accessed November 6, 2015).
 According to the GAO, “The amount of the grant is equivalent to 75 percent of allowable costs, subject to a maximum that varies from country to country. Staff are eligible for the grant up to the fourth year of their child’s postsecondary education, or age 25. For U.N. staff in the U.S., the maximum education grant in May 2013 was $43,589.” Government Accountability Office, “Key Compensation Elements Should Be Reviewed to Address Costs and Sustainability,” p. 52.
 Government Publishing Office, “United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions (Plum Book), 2012,” December 1, 2012, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-PLUMBOOK-2012/pdf/GPO-PLUMBOOK-2012-8-22.pdf (accessed November 6, 2015), and Office of Personnel Management, “Salary Table No. 2015-EX: Rates of Basic Pay for the Executive Schedule (EX),” effective January 2015, http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/salary-tables/pdf/2015/EX.pdf (accessed November 6, 2015).