Three Things You Need to Know About the UN Scales of Assessment Negotiations Underway in New York

Every three years, the member states of the United Nations must agree on how much they will contribute as dues payments to fund the UN and UN peacekeeping operations around the world. This is known as the “scale of assessment.” All 193 dues paying UN member states must agree to it, which is no easy feat.

These negotiations are currently underway in New York and needless to say, these negotiations are extremely complex. It is not unusually for agreements to be reached around midnight on Christmas eve. This year may be no exception.

Here is what you need to know about the UN scales of assessment negotiations

How the Formula Works 

The formula used to determine a country’s dues payment is mainly based on that country’s share of the global gross national income — in other words how wealthy it is compared to other countries. But there are caveats — lots of them.

For one, adjustments are made for low and middle income countries if they have large external debt. Adjustments are also made if the country’s per capita income is lower than the global average. Countries that are considered Least Developed Countries (of which there are a total of 33) are in a category all their own. The maximum they can pay is 0.01% of the UN budget and the minimum they pay is 0.001% of the budget. Also in a category of its own is the  largest contributor (i.e. the United States) which pays no more than 22% of the budget, even if the formula would suggest otherwise. The UN peacekeeping budget is based mostly on this scale of assessment, though with other adjustments. (For example, permanent members of the Security Council pay more for the fact they are the ones authorizing the peacekeeping missions).

Here are the top 10 biggest economies and their share of the UN budget.

Credit: Better World Campaign

The United States is in a category of its own

As the largest economy in the world, the United States is the single largest funder of the UN budget and of UN peacekeeping, at 22% and 27.88% respectively.  But Congress has made funding the United Nations extremely difficult, especially UN peacekeeping. Even though it is billed for 28% of the cost of sending peacekeepers around the world, for the last two years the US has only paid 25%.  This is a cap imposed by Congress, but has been periodically lifted — including during several years of the Obama administration.

Since the Trump administration took office, that 25% cap has remained in place. So, while the US is billed for 28% of the cost of Blue Helmets, it only pays for 25%. This gap means the US has accrued significant arrears. If Congress does not lift this cap, the US will be about $750 million in arrears for FY 2019.

Scales of assessment negotiations are one of the very few moments when diplomacy at the United Nations is a zero sum game.

When one country pays less, other countries pay more–and vice versa. This creates a logjam in negotiations that must proceed by consensus.

The general dynamic is that the United States seeks to lower its share of the UN peacekeeping budget to keep it in line with that 25% cap imposed by Congress. (And indeed, in his speech to the General Assembly in September, President Trump re-iterated that point.) The problem is, when the US tries to reduce its share of the peacekeeping budget other countries object, citing the 22% cap of the regular budget, which keeps the US contribution to the regular budget artificially low compared to other wealthy countries.

Furthermore, lower income countries make up the bulk of member states at the United Nations, and they are generally loathe to give up the adjustments in the formula from which they benefit.

Breaking this logjam requires months–if not years — of planning and deft diplomacy. In the 1990s, the late US Ambassador to the UN Richarld Holbrooke undertook a massive effort and against all odds was able to secure a reduction of US dues payments from 25% to 22%. This year, there has been no similar effort from the United States. Deeper still, the fact that Nikki Haley is leaving her post weakens the US hand during these negotiations.

This means the most likely outcome from these negotiations are that member states agree to use the existing formula — which means that the United States will continue to accrue arrears for UN peacekeeping.

These arrears are already having an impact on the effectiveness of some peacekeeping operations, and unless Congress lifts that 25% cap, we can continue to expect more challenges along those lines in the years to come.