The United Nations' Financial Crisis

The United Nations is not just a talking shop for international diplomacy. It works to provide humanitarian and peacekeeping operations which are desperately needed in a world which has hosted over 150 wars resulting in 20 million deaths since 1945. A more pro-active UN is clearly needed to prevent further human rights abuses, massacres and wars, however it cannot operate effectively when the resources are insufficient, particularly financial resources.

Over the last 2 decades, the UN has gradually run out of money. Unlike the World Bank, the UN is not allowed to borrow money in international capital markets. It depends absolutely on contributions which member states agree to pay. The problem is that member states are not paying up. Successive Secretary-Generals have highlighted the precarious nature of the UN's finance, and that the world spends ~$800bn per year on arms but cannot source the required $2bn per annum for UN peacekeeping. In 1999, only 32 of the 185 member states paid on time.

The worst offender when it comes to late or non-payment is the world's richest country - the United States. Typical arrears for the US are between $1-4bn. This has its origins from the Reagan period, when the US regarded the UN as a bureaucratic waste of space. Cutting down contributions to the organisation would allow America to reduce its huge budget deficit. Clinton began to rectify the situation, but the US right-wing lobby prevented much progress, which has all but petered out under Bush. Of course, the US is not the only country to be in arrears. Many of the former Soviet republics, for example, are prevented from contributing by severe domestic financial problems. Countries contribute to the UN in proportion to what they can afford, but many former Soviet countries had their economics abilities overestimated following the demise of their union.

The UN has begun to borrow money from its other areas to fund desparately needed peacekeeping missions, which are carried out as an integral fulfillment of the UN charter. The loss of credibility of these missions in the mid nineties over failures such as Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica however does not encourage those countries in arrears to pay up. Many do not see the point in funding something which does not appear to work. Many of these 'failures' though are due to a lack of resources in the first place. When in 1994 the Secretary General Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali told member states 35 000 troops would be required to maintain safe areas in Bosnia, member states mustered only 7500 troops, after a year long period of deliberation. This operation then cost more than all other peacekeeping missions in total as the situation worsened so much during the time in which there was insufficient troops.

The UN has begun to reform its bureaucracy in order to divert more money to more desparate areas. Sadly though, total budgets have had to be reduced despite increasing contributions from non-governmental organisations and private individuals, such as head of Time Warner Ted Turner, who donated an extraordinary $1bn in 1997. It seems however that the more defunct the UN appears to the world, particualrly developed countries who contribute most of the finances, the less resources the UN will have, and the more inadequate it will become.

United Nations Information Centre, 18 Buckingham Gate, London.