It’s not an especially pleasant time to be a bureaucrat at the United Nations.
Those of us outside of Turtle Bay like to make fun of the United Nations as a ginormous, bloated, ineffective organization that sucks up $600 million of U.S. taxpayer money every year. UN-bashing has been a favorite pastime for Republicans, particularly the more hard-line fiscal hawks within the party who are always trying to cut costs in order to lessen the deficit. Indeed, some GOP members of Congress have even introduced bills pulling the United States out of the United Nations completely. And at times, it appears as if Nikki Haley, the current U.S. ambassador in New York, would rather be doing something else with her time than sitting in the Security Council chamber and dealing with perpetual obstructionism from the Russians and Chinese.
But like it or not, the United Nations is still an indispensable player in global politics. There is an endless list of problems and crises around the world, many of which individual governments don’t want to deal with. When a humanitarian catastrophe or civil conflict ends up escalating into a full-on conflagration that threatens to spill across national borders, it’s the United Nations that is often the body that steps into the breach. Right now, there are over one hundred thousand UN troops, spread out over fourteen missions, keeping a tenuous calm from reverting back to civil war or regional conflict. A good portion of these peacekeeping missions are in Africa, a continent infamous for its intractable tribal and ethnic spats, poverty, unforgiving violence against civilians, and out-of-touch, corrupt elites who steal public funds to power their lavish lifestyles.
The situation in many of these countries is still violent and desperate, even with the protection and services that the United Nations offers. But take those services away or significantly reduce the resources UN officials are able to work with, and it’s not infeasible to imagine millions more being displaced from their homes, killed in the crossfire, deliberately targeted, or scrounging for food. The United Nations and its partners, from the World Food Program and UNICEF to the UN refugee agency and the Department of Peacekeeping itself, serve as the world’s metaphorical turnakit.
This is why last week’s internal memo from UN Secretary-General António Guterres warning about financial problems within the organization is so disconcerting. As Guterres writes in his message, “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 numbers back up those claims. At this time last year, the United Nations’ regular budget was $1.7 billion. This year, the figure is $1.49 billion, a roughly $200 million shortfall.
UN headquarters in New York is not the only global entity experiencing a cash crunch. Those focusing on humanitarian aid delivery in conflict zones, providing care to refugees, and preventing starvation and disease to families displaced from their homes are all operating in an unforgiving environment. Wealthy donors in the European Union, North America, Asia and the Persian Gulf are simply tapped out, while others view financial contributions to UN emergency programs as ripe for abuse or mismanagement.
In June, the UN special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reported to the Security Council that the UN organization responsible for caring for and providing education to over five million Palestinian refugees was “weeks away from painful cuts to its emergency assistance for Gaza and elsewhere in the region.” If other governments were unable or unwilling to make up Washington’s share of budgetary assistance (this January, the Trump administration announced it would be significantly downsizing its contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency), salaries would be docked and approximately 270,000 Palestinian children would be deprived of schooling.
Emergency workers in Syria are at an even bigger disadvantage. With the war having lasted for over seven years, donors are simply exhausted with writing checks. Donor conferences are held periodically, but there is no guarantee that the UN officials will succeed in reaching their target number; this April, a pledging conference elicited about half of what the event was seeking to raise for the year.
And in Iraq, where the government in Baghdad assessed that $100 billion would be needed to rebuild after the war against the Islamic State, donors were only willing to pledge $30 billion—most of which came in the form of loans and investments. Whether nations deliver on their pledges is very much an open question.
One can’t blame rich nations for being stingy with their money. The United States, the wealthiest country on the planet, has its own share of problems at home. With debt going up every second, it’s doubtful that the American people would support their tax payments being used for the clearing of rubble and the building of structures in Mosul, Iraq, when there are plenty of buildings, roads, bridges and dams across the United States that need repair work.
But the least every nation can do is pay their bills to the United Nations. The United Nations may be typecast as a collection of bumbling bureaucrats in suits, but it still performs the kind of valuable work that countries would be pressured to perform themselves if the United Nations was not around.
But like any organization, the United Nations can’t do much of anything if member states don’t pony up. Without cash, the headquarters at Turtle Bay might as we’ll cease to exist.
Daniel R. DePetris is a world affairs columnist for Reuters, a frequent contributor to the American Conservative and the National Interest , and a foreign-policy analyst based in New York, NY.