- 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. In 2020, it contributed more than $11 billion, which accounted for just under one-fifth of funding for the body’s collective budget. That was despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to cut funding as his administration prioritized sovereignty over globalism. His administration argued that the United States incurred disproportionately large costs and that UN programs contradicted the administration’s policy stances. President Joe Biden has affirmed the United Nations’ importance to U.S. foreign policy and increased funding to the organization.
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 2020, the United States paid for 12 percent of the regular budget and 26 percent of the peacekeeping budget. 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 about $11.6 billion to the United Nations in 2020, 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 or completely eliminate voluntary contributions to many UN programs, in particular targeting peacekeeping operations and several specialized agencies. Trump rejected the globalism of the United Nations and viewed certain programs as contradictory to his administration’s agenda on Israel, abortion, and other policy areas.
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, it reduced funding for the UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the WHO by about 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration announced that the United States would withdraw from the WHO completely and cut funding further.
For many agencies, especially those that depend on voluntary funding, cuts in U.S. contributions can be painful. For example, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, relied on the United States for about one-third of its budget until the Trump administration halted contributions in 2018. The move led the agency to lay off staff and slash its health, education, and food assistance.
Trump also tried to cut aid to UN peacekeeping efforts by almost half a billion dollars. 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.
Has Biden restored funding to these agencies?
The Biden administration sees the United Nations as an important forum for realizing U.S. foreign policy goals and demonstrating U.S. leadership in the world. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, has said that “we need to pay our bills to have a seat at the table.”
After his inauguration in 2021, President Biden began refunding some of the agencies that saw cuts under Trump. Biden halted the planned U.S. exit from the WHO, with contributions to the agency continuing uninterrupted. The administration also restarted funding for UNFPA [PDF], providing more than $30 million to the agency in 2021—about the same amount as five years earlier—and requesting $56 million for it in 2022. In addition, the administration resumed funding for UNRWA, contributing $318 million in 2021.
The administration’s budget request for the 2022 fiscal year proposes to fully meet U.S. obligations to the United Nations for the first time since 2017 and begin paying off part of the $1 billion owed in peacekeeping-related arrears.
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.
Have other nations increased their contributions in recent years?
As U.S. contributions declined, China stood out as one of the countries that boosted its commitments to the United Nations. In 2020, China paid 14 percent of the peacekeeping budget, making it the second-largest contributor behind the United States. Since 2013, China’s contributions to peacekeeping operations have increased almost threefold, and the country provides more personnel than any other UN Security Council permanent member.
Beyond peacekeeping, China’s contributions to the United Nations have been largely concentrated in development agencies, specifically WFP, the UN Development Program, and the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.
In addition, Chinese nationals have assumed leadership positions in UN agencies. As of April 2020, seven of the United Nations’ senior leaders were Chinese nationals [PDF], compared to twenty-six U.S. nationals.
Lynn Hong, Zachary Rosenthal, Nathalie Bussemaker, Laura Hillard, Diana Roy, and Amanda Shendruk contributed to this article. Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphics.