With the US still owing nearly $2B, UN looks at how to fund 2021

The United Nations Office at Geneva in Switzerland. Photo by: Torbjorn Toby Jorgensen / CC BY-SA

Climate change, the rising risks of famines, and global leadership changes are among the top issues set to dominate the United Nations’ agenda this year, experts say. But first, the U.N. will have to face its worst liquidity crisis in decades, according to Jordie Hannum, executive director at the Better World Campaign. Much of that shortfall comes from the United States.

The U.S. owes the U.N. over $1 billion alone for peacekeeping, Hannum wrote in an email to Devex. The U.S. has also not delivered more than $630 million in outstanding payments to the United Nations’ core budget, which relies on mandated dues from each member state, dependent on their wealth. Arrears to the World Health Organization specifically total $203 million.

The U.S. owes more to the U.N. than it has since 1999, according to Peter Yeo, president at the Better World Campaign. But a full accounting of that amount is still necessary, Yeo said.

“It makes it difficult for the U.N. to do its job effectively when there is a cash flow issue as a result of late [payments] or nonpayments. And it also makes it a challenge in terms of American leadership at the U.N. when we are viewed as not having better financial agreements, whether it is negotiating texts in the Security Council, or various other U.N. forums,” Yeo told Devex. “We are going to have more leverage if we have met our financial commitments and if we are not behind on them.”

Aside from the $203 million the U.S. owes to WHO, the country has also redirected over $300 million in WHO contributions, as it previously did with funding for the U.N. Population Fund.

“We are being forced to operate not on the basis of strategic direction, but rather on the availability of cash, which undermines mandate implementation.”

— António Guterres, secretary-general, U.N.

“In either case, there has been little explanation as to who are the new implementing partners, the effectiveness of those partners chosen, or how they were determined. That said, we do know a lot about current shortfalls and their impacts,” Hannum wrote to Devex.

Overall, 144 of the 193 U.N. member states paid their regular budget assessments in full as of Dec. 30, according to the U.N. — a number aligned with previous years.

But the loss of timely U.S. funding, coupled with other countries not meeting their financial commitments, has significantly impacted U.N. operations, according to Secretary-General António Guterres. “We are being forced to operate not on the basis of strategic direction, but rather on the availability of cash, which undermines mandate implementation,” Guterres said in October.

The United Nations’ overall shortfall has also resulted in other effects over the last few years, such as limiting the organization’s travel and even temporarily closing escalators in the U.N. building. Individual agencies, like the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, have also scaled back work due to a lack of money.

U.N. member states approved a $3.2 billion budget to fund its work in 2021 during a last-minute vote at the end of December.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s team has signaled its willingness to reengage with the U.N., after the country cut ties with WHO under President Donald Trump and withdrew funding from UNFPA and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Biden in December wrote to Volkan Bozkir, president of the U.N. General Assembly, saying, “We look forward to working with you and the UN General Assembly on addressing the range of challenges and opportunities for which global cooperation is paramount.”

“The Biden Administration has acknowledged the loss of U.S. credibility on the world stage and will make restoring our credibility and leadership a priority. That will come in part by what we do at the U.N., and so we’ll be looking for early actions like rejoining the Paris Agreement and stopping the withdrawal from WHO,” Hannum wrote to Devex.

The U.S. funding UNFPA and UNRWA are two other early actions that Biden could take early in his presidency.

U.S. reengagement at the U.N. with the incoming Biden administration tops the list of things to watch for in the Security Council, according to U.N. expert Richard Gowan. A focus on the connection between climate change and conflict — both in the lead-up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in November and as global warming, rising migration, and other climate-related trends continue to accelerate — is also expected, Gowan wrote recently.

This is the year that the U.N. will likely begin to shift from COVID-19 vaccine preparedness to distribution and administration, entering a “new phase of the pandemic where solidarity is needed like never before,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing Tuesday.

Biden may help US-UN relations. But there isn’t a magic wand to undo damage.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration in the U.S. is likely to restore funding to major U.N. agencies. But it can still take time for the U.S. to fully regain its seat at the table, following years of distancing, according to experts.

The terms of several U.N. leaders, including Natalia Kanem, executive director at UNFPA, are also set to expire in 2021. Guterres’ four-year term as U.N. leader will draw to a close at the end of December — and it is not yet clear if he intends to run for reelection. Some experts have pointed out that Guterres’ speeches and plans for tackling the pandemic and inequality, for example, have hinted at another term.

But a U.N. campaign — with Michelle Bachelet and Leymah Gbowee among the names floated as possible contenders — will likely soon be underway. The U.S. election results might have also encouraged Guterres to seek another term, according to Enyseh Teimory, communications officer at the United Nations Association – UK.

“Last time, the [secretary-general election] process went on for almost a year. If they want to have a transparent process, it really needs to begin now. I am sure that it is the case that people are thinking about it, but so far there has not been any public comments on Guterres seeking another term,” Teimory said.

“For 70-odd years, the election process has been totally opaque, and that changed in the last election for SG. But there really has not been a wide chorus of anyone calling for the SG to make his intentions clear yet,” Teimory added.

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.