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How much is Geneva costing to the UN? The tricky task of understanding the UN budget(s)

The Palais des Nations, Geneva. (Credit : Keystone/Uno Schweiz Gebaeude)

The Palais des Nations with blocked escalators, conferences cut short and reduced staff pay: budgetary tensions within the UN system are an established fact. As of 28 August 2020, 79 member states haven’t paid their yearly contributions to the UN regular budget.

That compares with 66 payments still outstanding by member states in September 2019. Armenia, Portugal, and Ukraine were the first to pay while Switzerland was also among the countries to have paid well within the 30-day due period, by 1 February. The United States, Mexico, and Russia are among those still missing on the list.

The problem is not just the number of payments but the amount collected. A spokesperson for the UN office in Geneva said the Secretary-General had written to members states expressing his concerns about the “anaemic collections” in July and August – only $8.4m compared to $147.2m for the same period last year.

Why are we talking about it? The one thing Donald Trump insisted on while announcing the US’ withdrawal from the WHO was how much America paid the Geneva-based organization. With COVID putting public and private institutions into financial insecurity, we tried to see how much the “UN family” of organisations in Geneva actually cost.

Is it a new question? Not really. Geneva is an expensive place. This was highlighted by German authorities after the reunification when they tried to attract more UN organizations in their former FRG capital Bonn. The home office period during the pandemic showed that the UN maybe does not need all its premises in Geneva.

How does it work?

  • The UN regular budget covers the organization’s core activities. This includes headquarters expenditures, staff salaries, conference costs, UN Special missions, information work and human rights promotion. All 193 member states contribute to a percentage of this budget.

  • A UN specialized agency or office can be funded by the regular budget, by voluntary contributions and, in case of some agencies like the WHO, by specific mandatory contributions by member states.

  • As an example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights receives about 40 % of its funding from the regular budget. The rest comes from voluntary contributions.

  • Voluntary contributions come both from public and private donors. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations contributed by $229m to the WHO finances for the 2018-2019 period.

What do we know?

  • Contacted by GS, the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG) told us that it receives $221.3m from the UN regular budget. This covers the office’s running expenses including salaries of its 1807 staff and the organization of international conferences.

  • About CHF 5.9bn are the annual expenses of International Organisations with a headquarters' agreement in Geneva, according to the Cantonal Statistics office (OCSTAT). This includes investment costs and current expenses (i.e. salaries including benefits, social charges, and other expenses related to running Geneva-based offices). This important amount, however, does not specify which organization pays what and from which source.

  • The answer to our initial question probably lies somewhere between $221.3m and CHF 5.9bn. Those two numbers are of totally different nature. The first is specific to one particular UN office while the second includes organizations that have nothing to do with the UN system such as CERN, the ICRC, or the WTO.

A little investigated subject. Computing the costs of the UN Geneva-duty-station would require contacting every single Geneva-based office or organization and asking them, which shares of their budgets ends up in Geneva. We found no researcher or NGO specialized in the matter. But we can’t exclude that member states keep track themselves of what Geneva costs.

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