Critics of U.S. spending on the United Nations got a huge boost—and supporters of that spending, especially the Obama Administration, took a body blow—from an unlikely source this week: the British government, long one of the U.N.’s staunchest supporters.
In a sweeping and hard-nosed reorganization of priorities for its $10.6 billion multilateral foreign aid program, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron has pulled the financial plug entirely on four U.N. agencies at the end of next year, put three others judged merely “adequate” on notice that they could face the same fate unless they improve their performance “as a matter of absolute urgency;” and issued pointed criticisms of almost all the rest.
The major exception: UNICEF, the U.N. children’s aid agency, which got a strong endorsement and a funding increase.
The tough actions were revealed as the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has been gearing up an extended critical look at U.N. funding as part of its overall budget austerity plan. The British revelations also came while U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice was on an extended cross-country tour, drumming up grass-roots support for U.N. funding in what is sure to be a protracted battle. Unveiling of the new British priorities undoubtedly will hearten her opponents on Capitol Hill.
Moreover, the British actions change the focus of the debate, from gauzy generalizations about the need for and importance of the U.N. to a realistic look at what it actually achieves.
The basis of that switch is the same urgent necessity hanging over almost every Western government: austerity. For Britain’s coalition government, however, the need to make dramatic domestic buts has been coupled with a promise to avoid cuts, and even make budget increases, in the money it sends to help the world’s poorest people—part of the price of bringing the minority Liberal-Democrats into the coalition.
But the outcome could be an international game-changer: to defend its relatively liberal position on global anti-poverty aid, the government is switching from publicly supporting institutions to publicly awarding and penalizing them on the basis of their results—an attitude that is likely to send a continuing shock wave through the sprawling, bureaucratic U.N. system.
Such an attitude is “long overdue,” in the opinion of Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.S. funding of the U.N. at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and a longstanding critic of unquestioning American support for the institution. “The taxpayers in developed countries and the poor in developing countries both deserve better than they have been receiving from the U.N.”
The U.S. pays 22 percent of the so-called”core” budget of the U.N. Secretariat, and 27 percent of peacekeeping expenses, but its so-called voluntary spending on U.N. agencies and programs goes far beyond that, to an estimated $6.3 billion overall.
Even that number is likely a significant under-estimation, since many U.N. bodes operate as “implementing agencies”—program managers—for U.S. funds that are channeled through non-U.N. institutions, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), where the U.S. has donated $5.1 billion since 2002, and pledged an additional $4.4 billion. The implementing agencies typically charge a percentage for their services.
Most of the U.N. agencies that have gone fully under the British budget ax are relatively inconsequential in U.S. terms. They include:
-- the Vienna-based U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), a so-called “specialized agency” that promotes industrial development in poor countries, with a budget for 2010-2011 of $517.8 million. The U.S. left UNIDO in 1996.
--UN-HABITAT, a Nairobi-based agency mandated “to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.” 2010-2011 budget, about $396 million.
--the International Labor Organization (ILO), a specialized agency for overseeing international labor standards, based in Geneva. 2010-2010 budget: $1.1 billion;
--the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), another Geneva-based operation intended to coordinate disaster prevention efforts and “build resilient nations and communities as an essential condition for sustainable development.” 2010-2011 budget: about $28 mllion
In all four cases, the British verdict was harsh. Of UNIDO, the government said, a review, “could not find any evidence of UNIDO having a significant impact on global poverty.” Likewise, the review “did not find evidence that UN-HABITAT is leading the United Nations system to work more coherently to tackle urban challenges faced in developing countries.” The U.N.’s disaster reduction system “has not performed its international co-ordination role well.”
In the case of the ILO, the British government conceded that the organization “has a strong role to play in setting labor standards,” but “does not have a significant impact” on global poverty reduction goals. So partial funding in the future would be funneled through a different British ministry.
Other U.N. organizations got sharp critiques of their “poor value for money,” and stern warnings to shape up within two years or face deep funding cuts—or perhaps worse. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was slammed for “long-lasting historic underperformance.” The $1 billion International Organization of Migration (IOM), which manages refugee camps, among other things, “only fills a marginal gap in the international humanitarian architecture.” The $2.2 billion Food and Agriculture Organization, which the British government says has a “key role” to play on global food security issues, “does not adequately fulfill a critical role.”
Some of the mightier U.N. organizations, like the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) and the World Health Organization, were deemed “critical” by the British in terms of their international role, but were rated merely “adequate” for their performance.
Others, like the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) –long a British favorite in the U.N. system--were given the nod as providing “good value for money,” but still criticized for their “weak” delivery of services and “weak” framework for producing results.
The most favorable British judgments came for UNICEF, which spends about $3.25 billion annually and has a “critical role” in delivering to combat poverty and other humanitarian objectives, and has greatly improved its focus on doing so. But even there, the government found room for additional improvement.
The reaction of U.N. organizations to the British shock tactics has been dismay—expressed as diplomatically as possible.
Kamdeh Yumkella, head of UNIDO, said he was “disappointed” by the British decision to withdraw funding, and claimed the review “undervalues” much of the agency’s contribution to British objectives and contained “inaccuracies.” The ILO declared that it “appreciates the commitment” of Britain to maximizing aid impact, before adding that it was “surprised by the conclusions.” A previous evaluation, the organization said, had recommended continuing support.The shock waves inspired by the British announcements may soon be followed by others.
Norway, for example, has long been one of the most reliable U.N. piggy-banks, giving a full 1 percent of its $380 billion GDP to foreign aid, often through U.N. channels. Its direct contributions to U.N. organizations are upwards of $900 million, not counting money channeled through U.N. affiliated development banks. It ranks as the U.N.’s sixth-largest donor.
Nonetheless, a spokesperson for the country’s development aid agency, Norad, told Fox News, “We are inspired by the new British review, and will look closely to see what lessons can be learned from it. Norway is a dear friend to the U.N. But it is important to be honest and let friends know when they don’t deliver what they promise.”
The chance to do that may come very soon. Norad this month is finalizing two separate studies on the U.N., including an analysis of how the world organization, in its sprawling array, spends its money. “If evaluations show that an organization performs badly,” the spokesperson said, “it will have consequences.” The evaluation would likely be released, she said, “in a couple of months.”
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News