Grand Riddle of the UN's Swelling Salaries

united_nations_accountant_7-9-14-2 The U.N. has top men calculating its budgets. Top. Men.


Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as a "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Much the same can be said of the ever-expanding finances of the United Nations, subject of a July 2 article by Fox News Editor-at-Large George Russell, headlined "UN Pay and Perks: After two years of US study, still a mystery."  Russell highlights a study of UN overall pay packages, released last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. As the GAO describes it, the UN General Assembly has "expressed concerns about the relatively large and growing portion of the UN budget spent on total compensation."

The GAO tried to figure out exactly what's going on with UN salaries and perquisites. The signal finding is that the UN itself may not be sure, and apparently is less than committed to finding out. The GAO, in its "highlight" summary of the study, reports that "the UN has begun to address concerns about the sustainability of its rising total compensation costs, including initiating a review of total compensation" -- but it seems that the compensation under study is actually well short of the real total. Or, as the GAO summary puts it, the UN "total" review "does not include key elements" (such as the almost $4 billion unfunded liability of the UN's health insurance plan for retirees).

But how can such things be matters of mystery? After all, we know that the U.S. funds 22% of the UN's regular budget. Surely with a bit of basic arithmetic the figures will fall into place?

Not a chance. That UN regular budget -- meaning the budget of the General Assembly -- is by now just a small fraction of the overall UN system, which includes a great many additional billions for peacekeeping operations, assorted funds, programs, commissions, subsidiary bodies, "other entities," etc. etc. (brace yourself, here's the organizational chart). Just to give you the general idea: the regular budget currently totals roughly $2.75 billion per year. But when I went looking earlier this year for a figure on the UN's total, system-wide budget (while writing an article on "The Twisted Conundrum of Funding the United Nations,")  the information I finally dredged up from the depths of the UN web site was that for 2012 the UN system had reported revenues of $41.5 billion. How the UN got to that number is yet another enigma, wrapped in indecipherable and in some instances inaccessible bookkeeping. But it's an intriguing sum, for an institution prone to pleading endless funding shortfalls. Where is all that money going?

For that matter, where is all that money coming from? The biggest contributor to this entire UN system is clearly the U.S., which tends to contribute 22% or more not only to the regular UN budget, but to most UN operations.  But exactly how much, altogether, does the U.S. chip in these days?