• U.S.

The World: Who Pays What at the U.N.

3 minute read

AT the United Nations this week, the 132 member nations of the General Assembly Budgetary Committee will vote on a volatile issue: a request from the U.S. to reduce its contribution to the organization’s regular budget from 31.5% to 25% beginning in 1974. Should the committee vote no and should Washington persist in its announced intention, the U.S. could theoretically lose its vote in the General Assembly after being in arrears for two years (although in the 1960s when the Russians and French refused to pay for peacekeeping operations they disapproved of, they still kept their vote).

The debate, which concerns only about $13 million per year (based on the current budget), is somewhat ludicrous. The contributions toward the regular U.N. budget take up only a small part of Washington’s share of U.N. spending. The regular budget appropriations of $203 million for 1972 cover wages and costs for some 19,000 staff members round the world, and a number of programs (drugs, human rights), conferences and housekeeping expenses.

Much larger amounts outside the regular budget are channeled into ten specialized agencies, including the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization; member nations are assessed these mandatory sums every year by each agency individually. Eleven other agencies, notably UNICEF, are financed by voluntary contributions. Biggest program in this category: the U.N.’s emergency relief to Bangladesh, which this year totaled $234 million, of which the U.S. has pledged fully 60%.

Compared with those amounts, the few millions that the U.S. might save by reducing its contribution to the regular budget seem paltry. The issue is somewhat symbolic; Congress voted to reduce the U.S. contribution partly out of anger touched off by the U.N.’s expulsion of Taiwan last November. But there is also a practical question involved. After West and East Germany become members next year, new contributions of about $15 million will come in. Should that money be used to let the U.S. lower its contribution or to allow the poorer countries to reduce theirs? (Theoretically, no country may contribute less than 0.04%, but in fact many regular shares are lower.)

Washington argues that no single nation should contribute more than 25% of the U.N.’s budget. But other countries maintain that the U.S. is in a special position, since it takes in about $135 million through the U.N. staff’s presence in New York. Whatever the merits of the case, the U.S. has by now become the certain loser in terms of international esteem.

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