U.S. diplomats at the United Nations are getting vocal in their frustration over smoke-and-mirrors numbers-juggling by the U.N. Secretariat, which says it is making financial cutbacks for 2012-2013, when it isn’t.
The frustrations, spurred in part by a restive Congress that is considering legislation that would drastically revamp the way the U.S. finances its share of the U.N. bill, are likely to get worse.
Among other things, Fox News has learned that the U.N. bureaucracy has decided to turn a deaf ear to a U.S. demand that it roll back an “inappropriate” 3 percent cost-of-living pay hike for its top officials this year, even while the U.S. bureaucracy suffers through a two-year pay freeze imposed by President Barack Obama.
Joseph Torsella, the U.S. ambassador for reform at the U.N., confirmed the U.N. decision to Fox News, while vowing to pursue the roll-back during this year’s U.N. General Asembly session, if need be, “with the aim of getting a true salary freeze through the G.A.”
Fox News revealed the existence of the pay hike on September 1, just five months after Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ordered his top officials to cut their budgets by 3 percent in the face of a financial “emergency situation” facing the world body.
There are no official estimates available for the overall cost of the pay hike, Torsella said, but the “back-of-the-envelope” U.S. calculation is that it would add another $10 million or so to a U.N. budget that is already a lot bigger than U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s officials want the world to think it is.
Torsella himself blew the whistle on the U.N.’s budget games on September 29, in a speech where he said the U.N. Secretariat’s proposed $5.2 “regular” budget for 2012-2013, was “simply loosening our belt a little less than we originally planned.”
Ban’s officials had said the new budget represented a 3 percent cut from its predecessor, and was fitting for “the austere times we are living in and the constraints that the global financial crisis has imposed on Member States.”
Torsella replied that it was no such thing. The same budget documents, he noted, revealed that “re-costing” and other measures already planned for the budget would bring the total to more like $5.5 billion—in other words, a more than 2 percent hike.
“That does not represent a break from business as usual,” he declared, “but rather a continuation of it.”
The U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, which would put Washington’s portion of the proposed “regular” tally at about $1.21 billion.
Overall, the U.S. spent at least $7.7 billion on the sprawling global U.N. array of organizations last year, up from $6.35 billion the previous year—an increase of more than 21 per cent.
“Ambassador Torsella’s statement is long overdue,” says Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. financing at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “For over two years, the Obama Administration has refused to challenge the U.N. over its stalled reform agenda and its enormous budget increases.”
Indeed, as Torsella also pointed out, the “regular” U.N. budget has grown “dramatically, relentlessly, and exponentially,” from $2.6 billion in 2001-2002, to $5.4 billion in 2010-2011.
“This growth,” he added, “has significantly outpaced the growth of the budgets of almost all the Member States that comprise the U.N.”
The same can be said of U.N. salaries. As Torsella also noted, the average total compensation of U.N. employees contained in the biennial budget is about $238,000—or $119,000 a year, tax-free.
And when it comes to cutting staff, the austerity budget proposed by Ban’s office manages to cut a total of 44 jobs out of a staff of more than 10,200.
Hidden behind even those minuscule staffing cuts, however, is another U.N. numbers game. At the same time as it sliced more than 140 jobs largely from the U.N.’s General Service category, which includes secretarial and other clerical help, the Secretariat added and upgraded jobs in its more expensive professional and executive categories, a condition that the U.N.’s main budget advisory committee calls “grade creep.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the creepage is the controversial United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which gets 13 new expensive jobs added, plus upgrades to 5 more.
The convoluted rationale: UNRWA’s largely voluntary overall funding is in crisis, which requires that the agency be “strengthened” through the addition of the fully-funded U.N. regular budget jobs.
But if anything, Torsella’s “business-as-usual” condemnation of the U.N.’s spending habits are still a wild understatement. The true U.N. Secretariat budget for the next two years is much, much more than $5.5 billion, as revealed in the same budget documents that Torsella was referencing in his complaint.
Alongside the “regular” budget paid from dues, far more of the Secretariat’s funding comes from so-called “extra-budgetary” or “voluntary” spending, which Ban’s officials project—on page 29 of the introductory budget document-- will total more than $12.44 billion, or 2 ½ times the amount of the “regular budget.”
That would bring the total Secretariat budget to just under $18 billion—roughly $821 million more than the same tally in the previous budget for 2010-2011, and a 4.8 percent increase overall.
It also makes the U.N.’s highly touted “regular” budget only about 28 percent—little more than a quarter—of the real total.
Figuring out the U.S. share of the true Secretariat budget is a difficult exercise, as Washington’s contribution is spread across a wide variety of programs and even portions of other, ostensibly separate U.N. organizations, whose headquarters costs are nonetheless contained in the Secretariat’s overall total.