Is the multibillion-dollar U.S. annual payout to the United Nations a good investment? The Obama administration says it is a smart move. The facts, however, suggest otherwise.
The smart investment claim was made most recently by Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, the branch of State that includes U.N. oversight, during last month’s opening session of the U.N. General Assembly.
While arguing that “the U.N. helps sustain the global economic landscape that U.S. companies depend on,” Brimmer also declared that “the U.N. spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year procuring goods and services from American companies. They spend more money here than in any other country in the world -- more than $1.5 billion last year alone.”
Summarized Brimmer in a State Department blog posting: “The time and money we put into the U.N. -- regardless of the broader contributions to our national health and security -- comes right back to us when the U.N. buys American goods and services.”
The truth is, not so much.
Brimmer’s source was the annual U.N. compilation of its procurement activities worldwide -- the amount of money the sprawling global organization spends buying goods and services around the world.
According to the 2010 procurement summary, the U.S. did, in fact, get $1.5 billion in U.N. procurement contracts this year, making it the U.N.’s top source of supply in the world.
But when it comes to overall return on investment, the U.S. procurement bounty looks different --and worse.
According to U.S. government figures, Washington gave $7.7 billion to the widely varying branches of the U.N. global system last year -- meaning that for every dollar the U.S. put in, it got about 19.7 cents worth of procurement back.
Compare that, for example, with Britain, which also ranks traditionally just below the U.S. as a U.N. donor nation. According to British government figures, London contributed about $652.8 million to the U.N. system during its 2010-2011 fiscal year (at current exchange rates). Atop that, Britain contributed about $627 million to U.N. peacekeeping in 2010, for a total of about $1.06 billion.
But Britain got about $490 million in procurement business in 2010. That’s roughly 46.2 cents on every dollar given to the U.N. -- more than double the U.S. return, in Brimmer’s terms.
The British return on investment was also better than that of the French, who, according to their U.N. website, spent at least $1.3 billion on the U.N. in 2010, and took in about $443.8 million in procurement sales. That works out to about 34.8 cents per dollar spent. Even so, the French ratio is still nearly twice as good as its U.S. counterpart.
The only major developed country that gets a slightly worse procurement return on its U.N. investment is Germany, which contributed $618.7 million to the U.N. in 2009 (the most recent available year on the U.N.’s website,), plus another $577 million for peacekeeping. Total: $1.2 billion. According to U.N. procurement statistics, Germany sold about $181.2 million worth of goods and services to the U.N. in 2009, or about 15.2 cents on every dollar contributed.
On the other hand, the U.S. does much, much better than Norway, one of the other top contributors to the U.N. system, which handed more than $1.2 billion in 2008, according to the Norwegian government. The Norwegian share of peacekeeping expenses that year amounted to about $65.4 million. According to U.N. procurement statistics, Norway got $46.4 million in U.N. business that year -- or about 4 cents for every dollar spent.