US Politics

Who pays for the UN and where does the money go?


US President Donald Trump thinks the United Nations spends too much money, but who pays for it and where does the money go?

The US President is not a renowned fan of the sprawling global network of UN organisations, calling the institution "weak and incompetent" during his campaign. 

But if his first speech as President to the UN General Assembly on September 19 took a more measured tone, he still complained that the United States “bears an unfair cost burden”, and called for major reform, including for other countries to pay more. 

“The United States is one of 193 countries in the United Nations, and yet we pay 22 per cent of the entire budget and more,” Trump said.

In this case, a President who has been famously loose with facts, is correct.

Who pays for the UN?

Total revenue by government donor 2016
Total revenue by government donor 2016
SBS World News

The US is by far the biggest donor to the UN, in 2016 contributing some $10 billion of its $49 billion annual revenue. The next biggest donors were Germany ($3.4 billion) and the UK ($3 billion).

The permanent members of the Security Council that most often oppose American agendas in the UN, China ($1.3 billion) and Russia ($562 million), are ranked 6th and 15th respectively in terms of the magnitude of their contributions.

Australia was the UN’s 13th biggest national donor in 2016, contributing $748 million. 

Countries’ relative contributions are decided by a complex series of formulas for different aspects of the UN’s wide-ranging operations, which are supposed to broadly reflect each country’s capacity to pay. The payments, known as "assessed contributions", are recalculated every few years to adjust for changing circumstances. 

There are also significant non-government donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which donated just under $300 million to the UN last year. 

Where is the money spent? 

Total revenue by UN Agency 2016
Total revenue by UN Agency 2016
SBS World News

The biggest drain on the UN budget is its peacekeeping operations, which cost $8.7 billion last year. There are currently 15 peacekeeping missions worldwide, and most of the soldiers involved are from African countries. The UN pays nations for their troops’ peacekeeping service meaning it can be quite lucrative for poor countries.

The World Food Programme had a budget of $5.9 billion last year, followed by the United Nations secretariat itself and the United Nations Development Programme at about $5 billion each.

Support for UN reform

Secretary-General António Guterres said 128 countries had pledged to back a 10-point plan for UN reform that would improve the member states' "value for money". 

“Our shared objective is a 21st century UN focused more on people and less on process, more on delivery and less on bureaucracy,” he said, following Trump's speech on September 19.

"Value for money while advancing shared values – this is our common goal.”

Mr Guterres said the organisational problems of the UN kept him awake at night. “Fragmented structures. Byzantine procedures. Endless red tape,” he said.

UN structure and agencies 

The UN was formed by 51 countries in 1945 after the Second World War, with a global mission to promote peace and security.

Today it has 193 member states and runs programmes worldwide covering peace and security, climate change, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, gender equality, food production and more.

The main bureaucratic organs of the United Nations, headquartered in New York, are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat and the International Court of Justice.

The UN also runs several agencies to tackle specific issues including the UN Development Programme which works to eradicate poverty; UNICEF, the children’s fund; and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Some autonomous agencies under the UN such as the World Health Organisation and UNESCO (the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) are also partly funded through contributions of member states. 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch