Why you should care
The Trump administration may gripe about the U.N.’s spending. But America’s failure to pay the U.N. on time is hurting poorer nations that are helping to keep the world safe.
When the U.N. slashed its 2018 budget by $285 million last December, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley was quick to claim credit and to portray the organization as profligate with America’s taxpayer dollars. “We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of,” she said. But take a look at the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions, its sword arm in actually keeping the peace globally, and it’s a different country that has the most reason to complain about being taken for granted. And the U.S. may be partly to blame.
The U.N.’s financial data from Sept. 30, 2018, shows that the body owes 76 countries a total of $221 million for their troop contributions. And it isn’t the U.S. — or any Western country — that’s at the top of that pile of nations.
It’s Ethiopia that the U.N. is most indebted to for peacekeeping missions, with $29 million in outstanding dues.
Every U.N. member state is expected to contribute to the organization’s regular budget, its peacekeeping finances and its other agencies based on a complex formula linked to the size of a country’s economy and its per capita gross domestic product. The U.S., for instance, needs to contribute 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, and 28 percent of its peacekeeping budget. The U.N. dips into that peacekeeping budget to compensate troop-providing nations: stipends for soldiers and for equipment that a country brings to a conflict zone. If a peacekeeper dies in the line of duty, there’s an additional compensation.
But when member states don’t pay their contributions on time, the U.N. isn’t able to compensate nations for staffing peacekeeping missions. The U.N. is short by $2.5 billion in unpaid contributions to its peacekeeping budget, its latest data from October shows. The biggest defaulter by far? The U.S., which owes more than $1 billion in arrears.
“If the money doesn’t come in on time, it can’t go out on time,” says Marina Henke, assistant professor at Northwestern University, whose research focuses on military interventions and peacekeeping.
They will have to assess how long they can continue to deploy their personnel without receiving timely reimbursements.
Paul Williams, George Washington University
And the consequences of the U.N.’s failure to pay countries on time are becoming evident. Earlier this year, Rwanda withdrew a planned rotation of one of its troop contingents to the U.N. mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) because it hadn’t received reimbursements on time. Other countries might start following suit, experts worry.
“They will have to assess how long they can continue to deploy their personnel without receiving timely reimbursements,” says Paul Williams, associate professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a close correlation between the countries that supply the most peacekeepers and the ones to which the U.N. owes the most money. Ethiopia tops both lists — as of October, it was contributing 8,333 soldiers. Rwanda, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia are all simultaneously among both the 10 largest troop contributors and the 10 nations the U.N. is most indebted to.
Italy is the only developed nation among the top 30 troop-providing countries. But that wasn’t always the case, says Vincenzo Bove, assistant professor in politics at the University of Warwick. In 1994, France was contributing more than 8,000 soldiers, the U.S. more than 4,000 and the U.K. nearly 3,000 troops, for peacekeeping missions. The death of Western peacekeepers in Rwanda, the Balkans and Somalia in the conflicts of the 1990s changed that. “Put bluntly, it became difficult for Western nations to justify to their populations why their soldiers were being killed in distant parts of the world,” says Henke. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq further meant that NATO nations focused their troops on those conflicts rather than on peacekeeping missions, says Williams. Today, France contributes 739 soldiers, the U.K. 662 and the U.S. only 49.
Developing nations, in the meantime, began to recognize the benefits of peacekeeping missions. For individual soldiers, the incentive is financial. The U.N. pays each soldier a little more than $1,400 a month while on duty. That’s a significant income in countries where the per capita income per month is often $100 or less. This stipend is in addition to salaries they normally receive from their own governments.
For countries, there’s some financial gain in the form of stipends they receive for using their equipment. There have been cases, says Henke, of countries using new equipment, getting reimbursed by the U.N. and then selling it off before its cost has depreciated much — thereby earning a profit.
Some countries — like Ethiopia, which views itself as a regional power — use peacekeeping missions as tools of influence. “Ethiopia contributes troops mostly to African operations, and this helps the country [in] improving its regional standing and image of a responsible country,” says Bove.
And for other countries, there’s often an unpublicized quid pro quo involved, says Henke. It’s mostly the West that decides where peacekeeping missions are sent, she says, so when they turn to developing nations for troops, those poorer countries can demand a waiver of debts, or strike other deals. “There’s a motivation because of what they can extract from the West,” she says.
But if the U.N. is repeatedly late in paying back troop-providing nations, they’ll have “some serious issues to consider,” says Williams. Unlike the U.S., there’s not just money at stake for these countries. They’re also putting thousands of their soldiers’ lives on the line.