Global Policy Forum

Observations on the Approval of the UN Regular Budget

By Lydia Swart

Points made at February 11 2009 panel discussion on UN Finances organized by Global Policy Forum and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung


These summary observations are based on attending meetings of the Fifth Committee and conversations with key delegates:


1)      For many years now, the United States has insisted on a zero-growth budget.  Other countries from the North have been more flexible thus far, although increasingly many of them see their own foreign affairs budgets dwindle substantially, and I expect we will see more resistance to budget increases as a result.

2)      In contrast, countries from the South - organized in the Group of 77 (G77) and China, which consists of some 130 countries now - have often made it abundantly clear that they have never agreed to zero-growth budgeting.  In fact, they believe that the UN should get sufficient funding to execute all its mandates.  In particular, they want to see much more funding for the Secretariat to do development work.

3)      UN assessments for the regular budget are based on the capacity to pay and as such this resembles personal income tax.  But the current situation, where a small group of countries provides 80% of the budget, is not healthy. It seems clear that the biggest donors feel entitled to a bigger say on the budget, and while the G77 does not allow them a much bigger say in the Fifth Committee, it must be extremely difficult for the Secretariat to resist pressure from the biggest donors altogether. Consequently, conversations probably take place in meetings outside the Fifth Committee, undermining transparency and democratic principles.

4)      Sadly, almost every Member State is suspicious of the Secretariat.  The Secretariat is accused of padding the budget; automatically asking for additional funds when given new tasks while not sufficiently exploring possible overlaps; it is chastised for not being transparent; not being sufficiently accountable; deliberately vague in its answers to requests for information etc.

5)      All Member States seem to agree that the Secretariat does not produce its reports on time, the multitude of which can be rather mind-boggling.   It is imperative that the Secretariat produce its reports on time even if most delegates admit that they cannot possibly read all of them.  It should be noted that Member States add to the reporting burden by often requesting additional reports - a stalling tactic that is commonly used by the Fifth Committee when it cannot agree on an issue.

6)      In the Fifth Committee, the Q&A sessions are often painful to watch for an outsider like me.  Delegates ask questions from Secretariat staff and officials in an often testy, if not openly hostile, manner. The implied lack of trust and respect is not conducive to a productive working relationship.

I sometimes get the impression that delegates often do not want to accept the answers given in order to keep the issue alive till the end of the session when they can trade issues. Thousands of pages of written answers are provided each session by the Secretariat in response to questions from the Fifth Committee. Furthermore, many of these same questions were probably already explored by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ). As a result, many issues are really not decided on merit but instead on their negotiation value.

7)      As to the ACABQ - this advisory body initially consisted of independent experts coming from capitals. However, most of their members are now picked from within the Fifth Committee and it seems they bring their politicized attitudes with them.  The Fifth Committee as a result ends up needing more time to reach its conclusions, at times delaying negotiations.

8)      It seems that there is no sound division of labor between the Secretariat and Member States.  For instance, should certain personnel issues be the prerogative of the Secretariat without interference from Member States - the hiring of high-level managers comes to mind. Shouldn't solving logistical issues - if they do not involve major investments - be left to the Secretariat to decide?

9)      Management experts, when asked about the Fifth Committee, openly wonder how a body of 192 members can efficiently make decisions.  Delegates often point out that in reality, blocs - such as the G77 and the EU - coordinate positions and that not each delegate makes interventions.  That some issues move slowly in the Fifth Committee, however, may be a result of the fact that decision-making within these blocs is far from easy.  Decision-making in blocs is not very transparent either.

10)  I have the impression that the decision-making process in the G77 may not be genuinely representative of all its members.  Few delegates of the G77 seem to attend the meetings to reach common decisions, allowing just a few delegates to run the show.  I imagine it is very much a capacity issue - small missions just cannot follow all issues and following the Fifth Committee is very demanding.  One key G77 player, asked about how representative G77 positions are within their bloc, made a good point, however, when he told me that you can tell from the various votes that decisions are in fact carried by all members of the group.


These observations suggest that the Fifth Committee may wish to review some of its working methods.  Nevertheless, to achieve results in the Fifth Committee, political will and willingness to compromise are most important of all, yet it seems likely that the struggle between the power of the purse and the power of the majority will continue.


As one former chair of the Fifth Committee explained, next to the Security Council, the Fifth Committee is the most powerful body at the UN. It seems to me that shedding more light on the work of the Fifth Committee and on UN finances and priorities in general - by NGOs and the media - is extremely important.


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