- 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 $10 billion in 2018, slightly less than one-fifth of the body’s collective budget. Although President Donald J. Trump has sought major funding cuts to UN agencies, Congress has by and large approved higher contributions than requested by his administration, and overall U.S. funding has remained on par with prior years. However, if President Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid spending go through this year, the United Nations will likely be forced to undergo significant changes.
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 2018, the United States paid 22 and 28 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 $10 billion to the United Nations in 2018, the most recent fiscal year with full data available. About two-thirds of this total was voluntary and one-third was assessed. This represents roughly one-fifth of the $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.
The United States is responsible for a significant portion of many UN agencies’ budgets. For many of them, especially those that depend on voluntary funding, cuts in U.S. contributions could be quite painful. For example, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which previously relied on the United States for about one-third of its budget, said it would be forced to cut 250 jobs in 2018 after the Trump administration halted contributions to the agency. In a September 2018 letter [PDF], more than thirty U.S. senators warned the administration that the cuts could prevent 140,000 people from receiving food aid and more than 70,000 people from accessing clean water, though European and Gulf donors have helped to make up for the shortfall.
The Trump administration suspended all funding for the UN Population Fund starting in 2017; UNAIDS and the WHO also experienced significant cuts, losing about 30 percent and 20 percent of their U.S. funding, respectively, in 2018. And in May 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration announced that the United States would withdraw from the WHO completely—a move that would deprive the agency of nearly $900 million biennially—over concerns about Chinese influence. However, some legal experts have argued Trump doesn’t have the authority to pull out of the international body without congressional approval. In response, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said U.S. contributions to global health have been “immense,” and that the agency hopes “for this collaboration to continue.”
What other cuts to UN funding has President Trump proposed?
Overall U.S. contributions have remained steady in recent years, but the Trump administration has sought to pare down payments to the United Nations, in particular targeting peacekeeping operations and several specialized agencies. In his 2021 budget proposal [PDF], Trump seeks to slash aid to UN peacekeeping efforts by close to half a billion dollars; also 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 has 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. Still, it is unclear how many of the president’s proposals will survive this federal budget process. At the same time, China has been expanding its contributions, including by committing to a $1 billion UN peacekeeping fund over the next decade.
In his 2018 speech at the UN General Assembly, Trump said, “The United States is committed to making the United Nations more effective and accountable . . . Only when each of us does our part and contributes our share can we realize the UN’s highest aspirations.”
Is this a new debate?
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 Joseph Biden (D-DE), reduced the U.S. share of the UN administrative budget from 25 percent to 22 percent.
Nathalie Bussemaker contributed to this article.