- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
The United Nations is the world’s main organization for deliberating matters of peace and security, but its work encompasses far more than peacekeeping and conflict prevention. The UN system includes scores of entities dedicated to a range of areas including health and humanitarian needs and economic and cultural development. As a founding member of the United Nations and the host for its headquarters, the United States has been a chief guide and major funder of the organization for more than seventy years.
The United States remains the largest donor to the United Nations, contributing roughly $11 billion in 2019, which accounted for just under one-fifth of funding for the body’s collective budget. Although President Donald Trump had sought major funding cuts to UN agencies, Congress by and large approved higher contributions than requested by his administration, and overall U.S. funding remained on par with prior years. The Joe Biden administration is expected to maintain a similar level of funding.
How is the United Nations funded?
All 193 members of the United Nations are required to make payments to certain parts of the organization as a condition of membership. The amount each member must pay, known as its assessed contribution, varies widely and is determined by a complex formula that factors in gross national income and population.
These mandatory contributions help fund the United Nations’ regular budget, which covers administrative costs and a few programs, as well as peacekeeping operations. In 2019, the United States paid for 22 and 25 percent of these budgets, respectively. Assessed dues also finance other UN bodies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Members may also make voluntary contributions. Many UN organizations, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the World Food Program (WFP), rely mainly on discretionary funding.
How much does the United States pay?
The U.S. government contributed just over $11 billion to the United Nations in 2019, the most recent fiscal year with full data available. About 30 percent of this total was assessed and 70 percent was voluntary. This represents about one-fifth of the roughly $50 billion the United States spends annually on foreign aid. By comparison, that is about what the government allocates annually to the U.S. Coast Guard.
What funding did the Trump administration cut?
Overall U.S. contributions to the United Nations have remained steady in recent years, but the Trump administration sought to pare down payments, in particular targeting peacekeeping operations and several specialized agencies.
For many agencies, especially those that depend on voluntary funding, cuts in U.S. contributions can be quite painful. For example, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which relied on the United States for about one-third of its budget, said it would be forced to cut hundreds of jobs in 2018 after the Trump administration halted contributions. In a 2018 letter [PDF], a group of U.S. senators warned the administration that cuts to UNRWA’s budget could prevent tens of thousands of people from receiving food aid and accessing clean water. Worst-case predictions did not not bear out, as European and Gulf donors helped to make up some of the funding shortfall. However, as part of cost-saving measures, UNRWA laid off staff and reduced its health, education, and food assistance; as of late 2020, the agency was still struggling to pay its staff.
The Trump administration suspended all funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2017, after expanding a ban on U.S. contributions to organizations that perform or promote abortions as a method of family planning. The following year, UNAIDS and the WHO also experienced significant cuts, losing about 30 percent and 20 percent of their U.S. funding, respectively. And in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration announced that the United States would withdraw from the WHO completely over concerns about Chinese influence.
In his 2021 budget proposal [PDF], Trump sought to slash aid to UN peacekeeping efforts by close to half a billion dollars; cut by half a billion dollars funding of the Contributions to International Organizations account, which includes assessed contributions to the United Nations and funds for specialized agencies; and completely eliminate an account for voluntary contributions to many UN programs. While Congress largely rejected proposed cuts, it agreed in 2017 to enforce a mandated cap on U.S. contributions [PDF] to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) that had been waived since 1994.
At the same time, China has expanded its contributions in recent years, including by committing in 2015 to a $1 billion UN peacekeeping fund over the next decade. In 2019, China contributed just under $1.7 billion to the United Nations, more than half of which went to DPKO.
Has Biden restored funding to these agencies?
After his inauguration in 2021, Biden began refunding some of the agencies that saw cuts under Trump. Biden also halted the planned U.S. exit from the WHO, with U.S. contributions to the agency continuing uninterrupted. “It reflects our renewed commitment to ensuring the WHO has the support it needs to lead the global response to the pandemic even as we work to reform it for the future,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council in February.
The administration also moved to restart funding to UNFPA: Blinken said his department would appropriate $32.5 million for the agency in 2021, about the same amount appropriated five years earlier.
In addition, the administration resumed funding for UNRWA, announcing more than $230 million in assistance to Palestinians, $150 million of which would go to the UN agency.
Has the United States sought to cut UN funding before?
Past U.S. presidents and lawmakers have sought to decrease payments to the United Nations. In the late 1990s, for example, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) led an effort to force reforms at the United Nations by withholding U.S. contributions. The United States nearly lost its vote in the General Assembly as millions of dollars in unpaid assessments accrued. The instability ended in 2001 with a compromise between Congress and the United Nations. The deal, struck by Helms and then Senator Biden (D-DE), reduced the U.S. share of the UN administrative budget from 25 percent to 22 percent.
Nathalie Bussemaker, Laura Hillard, and Diana Roy contributed to this article.