The United Nations General Assembly is meeting this week in New York, which means it’s time for some familiar complaints about U.S. dues that are too high and clout that’s too low. Cue, also, complaints about bureaucratic bloat and sprawl. Those complaints have been accurate once, but things have changed dramatically. Here’s how.

Donors influence actions more than ever before — for better or worse.

In the United States, Congress often complains that the U.S.’s mandatory dues are too high a proportion of the U.N.’s budget. The U.S. share is the lowest it’s ever been: 22 percent of the whole, in line with our share of global GDP. Mandatory dues flow through U.N. governing bodies that, in theory, work democratically, with each member state having an equal vote.

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Funding is different for the U.N. agencies that do things on the ground — ones that politically attentive Americans know about, like the High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N. Environment Program. These agencies might get something from the mandatory U.N. budget, but if so, it’s small amounts of administrative funding for staff salaries. Most of what they do gets paid for with voluntary contributions — by which I mean not the small UNICEF boxes into which you might toss a few dollars on Halloween, but nine-figure contributions from nations large and small. For instance, in 2014 the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) received roughly $496 million from the United States, $389 million from the European Union, $380 million from Japan, and smaller amounts from other nations, such as Norway and Argentina.

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Money, as always, means influence. U.N. agencies know that donors can give more or less, depending on how happy they are with performance. In fact, donors can earmark amounts for particular countries or projects — for example, as when Belgium earmarks its U.N. aid for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or they can ban agencies from using those funds for specific activities — as when Congress bans U.S. funds from going to the U.N. Population Fund, which supports family planning and reproductive health, accusing the agency of “promoting” abortion.

Earmarked voluntary funding is growing. In fact, in 2013, fully 75 percent of contributions received by U.N. development agencies were earmarked, up from 56 percent in 1998. As my work demonstrates, this sharp increase in U.N. agencies’ reliance on earmarked voluntary resources means that donors have more unilateral influence. That undermines the multilateral decisions of U.N. governing bodies, which do not exercise direct control over earmarked funds.

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That change carries many costs. But it also means that it’s simply not true that the United States and other wealthy and generous donors don’t influence policy and practice. They do indeed get to say what happens with their money.

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New funding approaches are helping to tame U.N. bloat, overlap, and sprawl. The United States is not funding these initiatives. Yet.

The U.N. system is decentralized; each program and agency has its own governing body and its own budget. What’s more, they compete with one another for funding. Because they’re always courting donors, they’re rewarded for doing what donors like most, even if that’s not the organization’s strength or what evidence and experience suggest is best. For instance, that’s why when wealthy donors become interested in a new issue — like HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, or climate change in the 2000s — every U.N. agency develops its own program to attract funds.

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That’s part of why, from the outside, the U.N. system seems inefficient. That’s why agencies fail to work together and why they duplicate staff expertise and programming, wasting scarce resources.

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But there are new funding mechanisms designed to reward U.N. agencies if they coordinate. For example, The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) uses country-based pooled funds to deliver ongoing humanitarian assistance to states in need. OCHA distributes money to U.N. agencies and NGOs, but all projects are approved as part of a plan led by the U.N. humanitarian coordinator on the ground. This helps to ensure agencies don’t work at cross-purposes and that priority projects are funded first.

Similarly, the U.N. Peacebuilding Support Office will distribute funding to U.N. agencies in conflict-affected areas, but only if a project is actively endorsed by the lead U.N. agency already hard at work on the ground. For instance, if the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations is working to protect civilians in the Central African Republic, UNICEF projects must be endorsed by DPKO to receive funding. This requires some extra effort on the part of the U.N. agencies involved. But so long as they are strapped for cash, making funding contingent on coordination provides a strong incentive to work together.

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What’s more, these new bursars are much better at tracking and revealing exactly where funds come from and where they go, countering a longtime complaint about opaque and easily diverted U.N. funding. The Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office manages U.N. funds designed to distribute money across multiple agencies and facilitate coordination between them. It updates its online accounting in real time, giving specific data about which agencies and sectors receive support.

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Senators and other critics have complained about bloat, sprawl, and funding opacity for years. And yet the United States is not seriously funding these new coordinating mechanisms. The United States does not contribute to OCHA’s country-based pooled funds and has given only $250,000 to the Peacebuilding Fund. By contrast, Britain has provided $152 million, Canada $33 million, and China $8 million.

The United States does help fund some coordinating initiatives, such as UNAIDS. At a time when the United States is emphasizing humanitarian crisis response and peacekeeping, supporting OCHA and the Peacebuilding Fund would put the U.S.’s money where its mouth is, making its words more credible.

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There’s room for improvement at the United Nations, but old complaints should not blind us to the importance of what’s changed.

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No one would argue that the U.N. system is nimble and swift. As I argued elsewhere, fragmented bureaucracy at some important U.N. institutions, such as the World Health Organization, prevent effective reform even when donors try to push in a more efficient and effective direction. The U.N.’s many agencies were built piecemeal over many decades. Coordination won’t come quickly or easily.

But there are indeed successful initiatives. The United States could target its voluntary contributions to support those that fare well, both to encourage good work and to persuade other parts of the U.N. system to do the same. The United States has an unmatched ability to give bilateral aid. But sometimes multilateral efforts are the best approach. That’s when it pays to have a U.N. system that works well.

Erin R. Graham is an assistant professor of politics at Drexel University.

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