The United Nations says it’s running out of cash, with a budget deficit that comes as experts observe a steady decline in the organization’s influence in many parts of the world.
Late last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that member states have been slow to pay their dues to the UN, with 81 countries still owing a total of $810 million to the world body as of late July.
What’s more, the cash shortfall is worse than in previous years, Guterres said, and appears to highlight a disturbing pattern in late payment by member countries.
“Our cash flow has never been this low so early in the calendar year, and the broader trend is also concerning: we are running out of cash sooner and staying in the red longer,” the Portuguese diplomat wrote in a letter to member states.
Canada is one of 113 member states to have paid their budget assessments in full. Countries are assessed according to their capacity to pay and gross national income — Canada’s assessment for 2018 came to just over $71 million.
But 81 states are yet to pay. These include under-developed and conflict-ridden states like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, as well as richer countries like Saudi Arabia and the United States, which pays 22 per cent of the UN’s core budget — some $1.2 billion — and traditionally pays later because of its budget year.
The shortfall comes amid a change in perceptions of the UN and its influence in many parts of the world, according to Arne Kislenko, professor of international relations at the Munk School of Global Affairs and associate professor of history at Ryerson University.
“Many nations also see its current organizational structure as somewhat of a relic, no longer representative of the true nature of the international polity as it exists today,” he added, citing the absence of emerging powers India, Brazil and Indonesia from the UN Security Council.
“Comments by the Trump administration certainly don’t help the image of the UN, but by themselves they are not the cause of its decline in reputation.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has frequently lashed out at the UN and other international bodies. His ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has pushed for reform of the world body in a bid to cut costs.
“The inefficiency and overspending of the United Nations are well known. We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked,” Haley said in December, when the core budget was agreed.
The 2018-2019 UN core budget was agreed at $5.4 billion, which Haley said was a cut of $285 million from 2016-2017 (peacekeeping is funded separately, and not out of the core budget).
Kislenko says that while the UN is not without its ills, it would be simplistic to assume that late payment by member states could prompt much-needed reform at the organization, or indeed that the Trump administration has any great foresight into how to rejuvenate the world body.
“Many critics say the ‘illness’ of the UN goes much deeper than money or budgets,” said Kislenko. “Trump may be right on that note, but of course his understanding of the UN and international relations in general would fit on a pin-head, so crediting him with some tremendous insight in this regard is ludicrous.
“He’s merely ranting on about what many have said before as it resonates with his generally bombastic rhetoric about corrupt and bloated ‘international things’ that don’t serve the U.S. well.”
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Kislenko says that while the UN “does need substantial reform,” he believes it remains “a necessary agency in the long-term development of international relations.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint which exact UN agencies stand to be the most affected by the cash shortfall, said Kislenko, as complex calculations are used to determine how agencies are funded.
“So technically any could be hampered, but of course cuts to agencies like UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), WHO (World Health Organization) could be most acutely felt given the nature of their work,” he said.
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It’s a message that Secretary-General Guterres also sought to convey in his letter to member states.
“An organization such as ours should not have to suffer repeated brushes with bankruptcy,” Guterres wrote.
“But surely, the greater pain is felt by those we serve when we cannot, for want of modest funds, answer their call for help.”