UN calls for continued engagement as Trump budget aims to slash funding

A view of the United Nations Secretariat Headquarters Building in New York City. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

United Nations leaders called for continued engagement with the U.S. government and careful consideration of President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget, as the Republican administration followed through on its pledge to cut funding for the intergovernmental organization and its related agencies.

The plans to slash funding to the U.N. come as the organization is responding to humanitarian situations of historic proportions, including escalating food insecurity and famine crises in four countries that require a $4.4 billion response by the end of March.

“Of course I understand it is a prerogative of President Trump and his team to find savings. On our part, [Secretary-General António Guterres] has committed to reforming the U.N. and make us much more lean, mean and also more efficient. I think that is the way to go,” World Health Organization’s Director-General Margaret Chan said in response to a Devex question about how the withdrawal of U.S. support could shape the U.N.’s response to current multiple crises.  

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“Every government is cutting budgets and that is not new,” she added. “I think the U.N. is very important for countries. We need multilateralism. There are issues that no individual government can solve … and I am sure the leaders in the U.S. government understand this.”

The United States has long been the the largest single supporter of the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, which annually assists more than 34 million refugees and others fleeing conflict and 80 million plus people with food aid. More than 20 million people now face starvation or famine in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, in four parallel crises that have manifested into the largest humanitarian crisis in the U.N.’s history.

President Donald Trump released his “America first” budget proposal on Thursday morning, confirming expectations that his administration would show less support for the organization.  Trump has called the U.N. “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” And Trump’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, while affirming her opposition to “slash and burn tactics” on spending levels, has also pressed against the U.N.’s treatment of Israel. 

As part of $54 billion reductions to non-defense programs, the U.S. could now slash U.N. funding across the board — potentially totaling more than 50 percent, as Foreign Policy has reported — and contribute no more than 25 percent for U.N. peacekeeping costs. The U.S. now pays nearly one-quarter of the U.N.’s total operating costs, totaling nearly $595 million for 2017, in addition to more than 28 percent of the peacekeeping operations’ $7.87 billion budget.

The U.N. has its largest peacekeeping units deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur.

The budget also said that it will eliminate the Global Climate Change Initiative and “fulfill the President’s pledge to cease payments to the United Nations’ (U.N.) climate change programs

by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds.”

The “skinny” budget, as it is known, does not specify the exact percentage by which it would aim to reduce U.N. funding. It also faces an uphill battle to get through the U.S. Congress and most experts expect it to change significantly. Both Democratic and Republican politicians have fiercely criticized some of its proposals, especially when it comes to cutting foreign aid and international projects.

But administration officials have portrayed their proposals as keeping cherished campaign promises and shifting U.S. policy to a more domestic focus while boosting military power.

“We are absolutely reducing funding to the U.N. and various foreign aid programs, including those run by the U.N. and various foreign aid agencies,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said during a press briefing. “That should come as a surprise to no one who covered the campaign. The president said specifically, hundreds of times, ‘I am going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home.’ And that is exactly what we are doing with this budget.”

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told reporters at the U.N. Headquarters Thursday afternoon that once it is clear where “those cuts start to come,” the U.N. will “engage as a system,” and that it is important to take the lead of Guterres.

In a written statement Thursday, Guterres called the release of the budget “complex and lengthy,” saying it “needs to be completed” by going through Congress. But he warned of the importance of a strong U.N. in managing vital global issues.

“The international community is facing enormous global challenges that can only be addressed by a strong and effective multilateral system, of which the United Nations remains the fundamental pillar,” Guterres’ statement continued.  

“Anyone can assess what would happen if there was an abrupt decrease in funding,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the secretary-general, during a Thursday press briefing.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.