The United Nations is the world’s main organization for deliberating matters of peace and security, but its work encompasses far more than peacekeeping and conflict prevention. The UN system includes scores of entities dedicated to areas ranging from health and humanitarian needs to economic and cultural development. As a founding member of the United Nations and the host for its headquarters, the United States has been a chief guide and major funder of the organization for more than seventy years.
The United States remains the largest donor to the United Nations, contributing more than $10 billion in 2017, roughly one fifth of the body’s collective budget. President Donald J. Trump, however, has raised questions about how much the United States will continue to contribute. If the Trump administration is able to follow through on his proposed cuts to foreign aid spending, the United Nations will likely undergo significant changes.
How is the United Nations funded?
All 193 members of the United Nations are required to make payments to certain parts of the organization as a condition of membership. The amount each member must pay, known as its assessed contribution, varies widely and is determined by a complex formula that factors in gross national income and population.
These mandatory contributions help fund the United Nations’ regular budget, which covers administrative costs and a few programs, as well as peacekeeping operations. In 2018, the United States paid 22 and 28 percent of these budgets, respectively, but it has proposed reducing peacekeeping contributions to 25 percent in 2019. Assessed dues also finance other UN bodies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization.
Members may also make voluntary contributions. Many UN organizations, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the World Food Program (WFP), rely mainly on discretionary funding.
How much does the United States pay?
The U.S. government contributed more than $10 billion to the United Nations in 2017, the most recent fiscal year with full data available. About $7 billion of this total was voluntary and $3.5 billion was assessed. This represents roughly one-fifth of the $50 billion the United States spends annually on foreign aid, which, by comparison, is about what the government allocates annually to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The United States is responsible for a significant portion of many UN agencies’ budgets. For many of them, especially those that depend on voluntary funding, cuts in U.S. contributions could be quite painful. For example, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which previously depended on the United States for about a third of its budget, said it would be forced to cut 250 jobs in 2018 after the Trump administration eliminated over $300 million in funding. In a September 2018 letter [PDF], more than thirty U.S. senators warned the administration that the cuts could prevent 140,000 people from receiving food aid and more than 70,000 people from accessing clean water, though European and Gulf donors have helped to make up for the shortfall.
What cuts to UN funding has President Trump proposed?
The Trump administration signaled early on its desire to pare down payments to the United Nations, targeting peacekeeping for initial cuts. In his 2018 budget proposal, President Trump requested cutting more than half of U.S. funding for UN programs, including all contributions to climate change programs. While Congress largely rejected the proposed cuts, it agreed to enforce a congressionally mandated cap on U.S. contributions to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) that had been waived since 2001. The measure reduced U.S. contributions from 28 to 25 percent of the DPKO’s budget, which could amount to a more than $200 million decrease in 2019. As Washington scales back its contributions, China has been expanding its influence, committing to a $1 billion UN peacekeeping fund over the next decade.
President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal would take a knife to several UN bodies, slashing foreign aid contributions and zeroing out the United States’ voluntary payments to many UN entities, including UNICEF and UNDP. The administration has also voiced support for limiting aid to member states who vote against U.S. interests at the United Nations. But it is unclear how many of the president’s proposals will survive the federal budget process.
In his 2018 speech at the UN General Assembly, Trump said, “The United States is committed to making the United Nations more effective and accountable . . . Only when each of us does our part and contributes our share can we realize the U.N.’s highest aspirations.”
Is this a new debate?
Past U.S. presidents and lawmakers have sought to decrease payments to the United Nations. In the late 1990s, for example, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) led an effort to force reforms at the United Nations by withholding U.S. contributions. The United States nearly lost its vote in the General Assembly as millions of dollars in unpaid assessments accrued. The instability ended in 2001 with a compromise between Congress and the United Nations. The deal, struck by Helms and then Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), reduced the U.S. share of the UN administrative budget from 25 percent to 22 percent.