US Lambastes $238K Average UN Salaries and More


The US representative to the UN for mangagement and reform delivered a scathing critique of the new UN budget–which was delivered piecemeal and incomplete to donors and reflects a massive spending increase that outpaces inflation. With 15 reports still to be considered, the UN budget is already at “an alarming” $5.5B, the US said.

Considered against the current 2010-11 biennial total of $5.367 billion, that is not a cut. That is in fact a more than 2 percent increase and this does not take into account potential add-ons in the second year of the budget. That does not represent a break from “business as usual,” but rather a continuation of it.

For a decade now, the United Nations regular budget has grown dramatically, relentlessly, and exponentially: from $2.6 billion in 2001-2002, to $5.4 billion in 2010-2011. This growth has significantly outpaced the growth of the budgets of almost all the Member States that comprise the UN. I am not drawing a comparison between the United Nations and the United States, but between the United Nations and the rest of the world.

It’s true that some of this growth can be justified by new mandates that we all proudly support. But it’s also true that those mandates do not account for the disturbingly persistent ten-year trend of increases in the UN budget.

We commonly hear that Special Political Missions are the main reason for the UN’s budget growth. But there are two key points to remember. First, SPMs are – by definition – non-permanent expenses. They may influence the picture for several years at a time, but they do not have the same long-term, structural impact on the UN’s cost structure as, for example, regular budget posts.

Second, SPMs are only part of the story on the cost side of the UN budget. If we consider the budget without SPMs, we see this clearly: it still shows dramatic increases, from $2.4 billion in 2000-2001 to $4.2 billion in 2010-2011. That’s a 75 percent increase – a rate that far outpaces budget increases again in most of the Member States of the UN and at a time when many Member States are cutting entire departments and ministries.

So what is behind this trend? Several budget lines deserve our attention this session: general operating expenses, travel of staff, and grants and contributions have all have played a role, and should be intensely scrutinized. But as I noted earlier, in any organization, it is personnel that is the largest and most important driver of long-term costs, and the UN is no exception: posts accounted for $2.4 billion in costs in 2010-11, a huge increase from ten years ago, when the total costs was a full $1 billion less ($1.4 billion in 2000 – 2001). When we look deeper, we see two troubling facts behind this increase. First, the number of posts themselves has increased, from 8,989 in 2000-2001 to 10,307 in 2010-2011. But second, the cost of UN posts – the total compensation to employees – has grown by 70 percent while the number of posts has grown by only 15 percent.

Focus for a moment on just one figure: according to the proposed budget, the average total compensation for a UN staff member – simply taking the total proposed cost of posts divided by the total number of posts, not including General Temporary Assistance positions – is $238,000 biannually. No number underscores Chairman Monthe’s point more than this one. Instead of spending our time arguing about whether this or that specific UN post should be a P-5 or a D-1, as we often do, we should focus on asking ourselves – and UN managers – the larger, more important questions: Why is it that both the number and compensation of UN personnel have grown so dramatically? How does management intend to bring these numbers and costs back into line? And why do we, as Member States, tolerate a budget process that tells us, how many meetings are scheduled or guidance materials published in a given department, but does not tell us, for example, how much the UN spends on health care benefits for its employees?

There may be little hope that the censure will do any good, since the biggest donor has only one vote. But the US Congress has the power of the purse and with such UN recalcitrance, may be wise to use it.


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  • goral

    The donkey talking about ears is a Puerto Rican idiom.
    “The pot calling the kettle black” is ours.
    In the time of our Lord it was: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
    US, “sweep in front of your own door first”, say the Germans.

    One could make the argument that the UN is our own door. That just exposes another pile of dirt.