Money makes the world go round. This is a saying that has never been truer than it is today, and it is particularly true in times of conflict, when adequate funding is the one thing that can prevent it from descending into chaos.
The world is currently experiencing a plethora of transnational threats, such as extremism, economic insecurity, and resource scarcity. The United Nations, to its credit, has done quite well to establish itself as a line of defence for global conflicts. However, recent and severe deficiencies in funding have left the organization relatively powerless in the face of humanitarian crises that are born out of political violence.
The UN’s funding crisis has caused several humanitarian missions to scale back their operations in recent years and further prevented the organization from mitigating the biggest and fastest growing security issues. This is most evident in the case of the Central African Republic (CAR), a country that is currently on track to become one of the world’s largest humanitarian disasters. Ethnic and sectarian violence have resulted in the death of nearly 6,000 people, and the displacement of several hundreds of thousands.
Despite the severity and urgency of this conflict, the UN has only managed to secure 31% of the funds needed for humanitarian relief, and will most likely have to suspend operations in the CAR before this year’s end.
The same has proven to be true in Iraq, where 80% of basic health care services have been suspended, directly affecting over one million people and increasing the risk of a preventable disease outbreak.
While there are several reasons accounting for this suspension of humanitarian assistance, the UN budget itself is one main contributing factor. The very structure of the UN’s budgeting process is thoroughly politicized, to the disadvantage of funding for humanitarian purposes.
The UN receives its funding in the form of two types of contributions: assessed and voluntary. Assessed contributions are paid as dues by each member state. They are calculated on the basis of a state’s gross national income, its national debt, and relative levels of economic stability. This type of contribution, considered mandatory for all member states, is used to fund the UN’s main budget, which supports the General Assembly, the Security Council, and various specialized agencies within the organization. Assessed contributions also support the UN’s peacekeeping budget.
Voluntary contributions are payments given by member states at their own will. It is these funds that are used to support humanitarian relief and development agencies, such as the UNDP and the UNHCR. Since states collectively have considerable say in how much money is allocated to these agencies and can use their contributions as political tools, voluntary contributions – or the lack thereof – run the risk of prioritizing diplomatic needs rather than the humanitarian crises for which the funds are intended.
The UN budget also suffers from a problem of arrears, since many states have trouble paying their dues for various reasons. While some choose not to pay simply because they cannot afford the amount they have been allocated, others, such as the United States, choose to withhold payment for political reasons.
This contributes to a further politicization of the funding process. Underdeveloped states are left incapable of providing input into how far humanitarian funds can extend, and politically contentious states maintain disproportionate influence over how much money is used for this purpose.
The UN’s funding structure is therefore heavily influenced by politics and the geopolitical situation of the time. As such, it better accommodates bureaucratic activities rather than physical and practical humanitarian activities. The UN is, consequently, unable to completely fulfill a crucial part of its mandate: alleviating human suffering and addressing the root causes of conflict.