Claudia Rosett’s Fuzzy Fractions

Well, no surprise that this UN-lover is pouncing upon Ban Ki-moon’s recent choice of words in chastising the United States for its perpetual debt to the United Nations. No surprise either that Rosett is playing as fast and loose with figures as ever; in the course of begrudging the United States even paying (belatedly, to be sure) its agreed-upon UN dues, she unleashes this bit of baffling number-bending:

Bear in mind that those dues are just a small fraction of the billions upon billions that the U.S. actually forks over every year to the UN in the form of additional funds — including voluntary contributions, support for UN agencies, special programs, donations to emergency appeals, peacekeeping and whatnot.

The United States owes 22%, or a little over a billion dollars, of the UN’s current $5 billion regular budget. In addition, it pays is supposed to pay about 26% (still below what it would owe if it paid a proportionate share of its GDP) of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, which is about $7 billion. And, all told the U.S. contributions to the other “voluntary contributions…and whatnot” that Rosett so flippantly cites — and which is “fork[ed] over” to such unimportant causes as funding humanitarian responses to natural disasters, feeding the world’s hungry, and building schools and hospitals in the developing world — amount to another $3 billion.

So bear with me for a little basic algebra: a little under $2 billion for peacekeeping, plus $3 billion for voluntary organizations, makes about $5 billion. $1 billion over $5 billion could be translated into the fraction 1/5, or 20%. Is this a “small fraction of [] billions upon billions?” It seems just as well to consider the United States’ $1.3 billion debt to UN peacekeeping — which constitutes about 1/5 of the entire peacekeeping budget — a “small fraction.” And if you ask the peacekeepers facing these shortages whether it’s such a “small fraction,” I think they’d disagree.

(image from flickr under a Creative Commons license)