Slashing and burning: US-backed budget cuts at the UN

/ UN budget


The UN’s 2018-2019 operating budget, passed in late December, includes a $285 million reduction after negotiations with the US.


– Budget reductions will reduce funding to several key UN bodies, and will detract from peacekeeping and humanitarian operations that rely heavily on US contributions.
– Current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has advocated for UN budget restraint, and his cushioning of budget cuts reflects careful negotiation between reformist and isolationist traits in US policy.
– While the budget cuts have opened up new areas of UN involvement, there is a risk of neglecting other departments and issues, and the US losing its influence in the organisation.

Late last year, the UN released its operating budget for the next two years. At the behest of the US, whose contributions make up almost a quarter of total national contributions, the UN budget was reduced by $285 million to approximately $5.4 billion in total.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has lauded these cuts as means of curbing the UN’s “inefficiency and overspending” that has taken advantage of the “generosity of the American people”, and has suggested that future budget cuts may be inevitable. While the cuts amount to only 5%, their impact on the UN’s bodies will be severe.


UN Secretary-General-designate Antonio Guterres.
Photo: The Kremlin

The new UN budget will reduce funds to every department, including critical UN bodies and funding programs. Organisations such as the World Food Programme, the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Development Programme will have significant reductions in their budgets, and UNICEF could possibly see a 16% reduction in total funding. The cuts also extend into US contributions to the UN Green Climate Fund and other climate change programs, which the US has pulled out of altogether.

While the current round of budget cuts will not directly limit funding to peacekeeping and humanitarian activities, the US successfully negotiated a 7.5% reduction in its financial assistance to peacekeeping and has capped its contributions to 25% of the total peacekeeping budget. While this is significantly less than the 10% slash initially proposed by Ambassador Haley, it still will have negative consequences on the day-to-day peacekeeping operations and future deployment of peacekeepers around the world, particularly in areas which rely heavily on UN peacekeepers such as Haiti and South Sudan.

Humanitarian assistance, especially in health and responding to humanitarian crises, will suffer heavily from the reduction in funding to key UN agencies. Previous budget cuts to the World Health Organisation led to a reduction in critical front-line staff and disease surveillance — one of the major causes of the slow response to the West African Ebola virus crisis from 2014-2016. Cuts to the World Food Programme also forced restrictions on its food voucher initiative in Syria in 2015, which possibly contributed to the 2015 asylum seeker influx in Europe.

Reductions to US contributions to the UN budget are not a new discussion. US hostility towards UN funding has been common since the mid-1990s, when powerful conservative senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms consistently stalled paying US dues to the UN and dismissed international aid programs as ‘pouring money down foreign rat holes’. President Donald Trump, while not as openly opposed to the UN, has been consistently critical of US funding to international organisations.

Trump has been recently empowered by the UN General Assembly’s sharp rebuke against the US decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; he and Ambassador Haley threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that supported the resolution condemning the US’ decision. However, these current cuts were the result of many months of negotiations between the US and the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.


Guterres’ ascension to office in 2017 was much anticipated. He succeeded Ban Ki-Moon, whose legacy is marred by inaction on crucial international crises and failed diplomacy on issues such as the continuing humanitarian disasters in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Yemen. In addition to tackling the enduring problems of Ban Ki-Moon’s tenure, Guterres has also been open about the desperate need for management reform at the UN, which was a defining feature of his candidacy for Secretary-General. Spurred on by the US, he has advocated streamlining the burgeoning Secretariat and reducing administrative costs within the organisation, as well as the significant issues of gender parity and sexual abuse within the UN peacekeeping forces.

Despite Guterres’ progressive roots and high hopes for his tenure, his capitulation to US demands for UN budget reductions may risk poisoning the rest of his potential decade-long appointment. This could seriously jeopardise his position as an impartial executive. However, Guterres’ negotiations reflect a very delicate balancing act between maintaining a strong relationship with the US and an equally strong, yet financially viable, UN system.


Peacekeepers coordinate security details
Photo: MONUSCO Myriam Asmani/Flickr

The UN budget has been steadily reducing for several years — the budget for 2016-2017 was around $400 million lower than the budget in 2014-2015, which was already 3% smaller than the previous one. These continuing cuts to the budget reflect a wider concern about the UN’s significant bureaucratic bloating and wasteful spending espoused by not only the US and the Secretary-General but also by the wider international community, since the UN budget is decided through consensus and negotiation.

With the widespread acceptance and continuing push for UN reform, the impacts of these budget cuts may be softened by efficient reshuffling of UN resources. According to US officials, adjusting budgets for peacekeeping in Darfur and Haiti early in 2017 freed up funding for political missions in several Middle Eastern countries and the creation of a special envoy for Myanmar as Rohingya refugees begin to return to the country. However, while resource reallocation has allowed for the creation of new positions, there is a very real possibility that other areas will be neglected. Areas such as peacekeeping, health and humanitarian response are being reduced in size or scaled back significantly, which will mean that the UN’s responses to international emergencies will be limited and conflict in areas which rely on UN resources for stability may erupt again.

The continuing reduction of US contributions also risks the loss of US prestige within the UN. Slashing contributions not only risks further reform within the UN — by diminishing the relative importance of the US to the organisation’s budget — but also allows for nations like China, Saudi Arabia and Russia to plug the gap, thereby gaining ground and influence. Washington’s financial role in UN peacekeeping has meant it maintains a significant amount of influence over the operations and countries in which the ‘blue helmets’ are deployed, as well as with smaller nations like Nepal, Bangladesh, Ghana and Jordan that provide the personnel. Budget reductions means that not only will the US go into arrears and curtail its ability to advance its interests at the UN, but also increase its growing isolation and strengthen the resolve of other powers to expand their influence and shift the global order.

Though the UN suffers from significant structural and political issues, it is the only global organisation that ensures countries share the burden of maintaining international security and stability. Its ability to meet these goals will be further hampered by reductions in the budget. With Trump’s belligerent UN stance and Guterres’ attempts at measured negotiations, the UN’s budget looks to be slashed even further and, with the US renegotiating its assessed contributions later this year, the UN risks being deprived yet again of much-needed income.


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