Monetizing the United Nations

by Sasha Alyson

The United Nations was founded after World War II – by the winners, who put themselves in charge. They still are. Germany and Japan today play a big role but they – as well as India, and all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – are excluded from powerful permanent seats on the Security Council.(1)

That alone is troubling. But big money – whether from wealthy nations, or from sprawling corporations – also plays a big role in U.N. affairs and that role is expanding. Several examples demonstrate the varied ways that it all works.

UNICEF as conduit. The 15-member U.N. Security Council consists of five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) and ten seats that rotate every two years. The permanent members hold most of the power – 98%, according to one estimate.(2) But to pass a resolution, they need votes from some of the others, and on a controversial issue, it looks best when all 15 members vote unanimously. Money and favors change hands to make this happen.

In 75 years of existence, UNICEF has had eight directors. Every one of them has been a white American. The newest, Catherine M. Russell, is trusted long-time aid to Joe Biden. Although officially the U.N. Secretary-General makes this appointment, in reality the president of the U.S. makes a recommendation and the S.G. rubber-stamps it.

There are obvious possible explanations for this: Racism and paternalism. Another factor is not so obvious: UNICEF seems to be a way of channeling aid funds to influence votes on the U.N. Security Council.

An analysis of U.N. votes found that countries with a rotating seat on the Security Council received more aid from both the U.S. and the U.N. when they were on the Council. U.S. aid went up by an average of 59% when a country joined the Council, then it dropped back down to normal after they left. In years with an important vote, it went up much more than in other years.

The U.N. aid disbursements tended to flow through UNICEF and “some of UNICEF’s policy actions are taken in consultation with the U.S. state department,” say the analysts. They conclude that “our results suggest that the U.S. attempts to influence rotating members both with direct foreign aid payments as well as with funds channeled through a U.N. agency it influences.”(3)

Carrot and stick: A particularly blatant case of tying aid to U.N. votes arose in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Much of the world was shocked by this unusually aggressive action. But the U.S. wanted unanimous approval for fast military action, and it strongly urged Yemen, a rotating member of the Security Council, to vote in favor. Yemen voted against. “That will be the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast,” a U.S. diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador. U.S. aid to Yemen promptly dropped from $70 million to $0. Twelve years later, when the U.S. wanted to invade Iraq on spurious grounds, aid-dependent countries knew the cost of voting independently. ”The Yemen precedent remains a vivid institutional memory at the United Nations,” noted Phyllis Bennis at Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies.

In a similar vein, Israel abruptly cut off its aid to Senegal after the West African country introduced a U.N. motion critical of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Israel never stood a chance of defeating this resolution; the Security Council voted 14-0 in favor with the U.S. abstaining. But Israel was furious that it had come to a vote.

Fox guarding the henhouse: The U.N.’s International Maritime Organization urgently needs to address issues of climate change and pollution that result from an unregulated free-for-all approach to the oceans. Instead, it postpones decisions and asks shipping magnates to voluntarily regulate their impact. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.) That’s because one in four delegates to IMO comes from industry. Vale, the Brazilian mining company with a heavy carbon footprint, has a seat at the table. So does France’s Total (recently renamed TotalEnergies), one of the world’s biggest energy companies, as well as various shipping firms, some speaking on behalf of their government. Their money gives them clout in their country, which then allows them to represent its interests. Thus, even as Chilean president Sebastian Pinera was calling for “more ambitious climate commitments,” Chile’s IMO delegates were undermining this goal.(5)

U.N. brand for sale. UNESCO openly fishes for corporate funding, inviting businesses to “benefit from a strong image transfer by associating yourself with a reputable international brand and a prestigious UN agency.” UNESCO took money from Nokia, the cellphone company, then conducted a superficial study and published a report claiming “UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries.” In fact, the study did not show that. Newspapers ran the fake news.(4)

Most recently, UNESCO “partnered” with Microsoft, to sell a video game with a climate-change theme. U.N. agencies shirk the hard decisions needed to limit climate change, but if they can cash in by endorsing a video game, that’s different.

Pacific Islands: Here’s some interesting aid trivia. The average per-capita ODA (Official Development Aid) to small Pacific Island nations in 2019 was $423 per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it was $50.(6) What’s going on? One factor is that if you’re using aid to bribe a country to get its U.N. vote, your money goes farther in tiny countries. A million dollars looks far more tempting to Palau (population 20,000) than to Mali (20 million), and they’ve both got precisely one vote.

Palau knows that. Stuart J. Beck, the American who became Palau’s U.N. ambassador, recalls: “I said to them, ‘Look, you don’t produce anything, you don’t manufacture anything, nobody’s after your labor pool, you don’t have anything that anyone wants, the U.S. already has defense and basing rights, so the only thing of value you have is your U.N. vote.'” The New York Times reported that with “Mr. Beck as its voice in the General Assembly, Palau became America’s staunchest ally, siding more often with the United States on important votes than even Canada… while also voting reliably in favor of Israel.”(7)

U.N. membership. Without even being on the Security Council, the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru was able to monetize its U.N. membership by becoming one of the only countries to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were supported by Russia in their bid to break away from Georgia. Russia returned the favor with tens of millions of dollars in aid.(8)

It’s hard to be critical of small island nations, whose very existence is threatened by rising seas caused by others, but vote-selling by any country weakens the world’s ability to act on critical issues such as this – and sometimes comes back to bite them. The Marshall Islands effectively sold its IMO seat to a U.S. company, now the Marshall Islands could sink under the waves because of short-term, profit-focused IMO thinking.

Zebras and giraffes. Wild animals don’t vote. They’ve got a different role to play. When Kenya wanted a lucrative seat on the U.N. Security Council, it agreed to send gorillas, hippos, zebras, and giraffes – more than 175 wild animals in all – to Thailand’s Night Safari, a pet project of Thai P.M. Thaksin Shinawatra, seeking to win his favor. Adding further offense, the Night Safari at that time was preparing a VIP banquet which featured choice cuts of giraffe and lion.(9)

“That’s how the world works,” some will say, in reply to all this. Yes, that’s how it works. And it doesn’t change if everyone just shrugs their shoulders about things like this. Those with money and power are using it to get more money and power, at the expense of those without. We need to protest this abuse.

Until the U.N. reforms – which isn’t going to happen without strong outside pressure – we should always remember, when the United Nations speaks, who it is speaking for.

Notes and Sources

1. When the U.N. was founded in 1945, membership was restricted to countries that had declared war on Germany and Japan. The Security Council was created then, and its permanent seats have not changed except that the Soviet Union seat is now filled by Russia, and the China seat, originally occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan), is now filled by the People’s Republic of China. At this writing (Feb. 2022), the ten rotating seats are held by Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, and United Arab Emirates.

2.,3. “How Much is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations,” by Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker, Journal of Political Economy, June 2006

4. “UNESCO sells its brand. Nokia buys,” by Sasha Alyson (on this site)

5. “Tasked to Fight Climate Change, a Secretive U.N. Agency Does the Opposite,” by Matt Apuzzo and Sarah Hurtes, New York Times, 3 June 2021

6. ODA data from the World Bank.

7. “Stuart J. Beck, American Champion of a Pacific Island Nation, Dies at 69,New York Times, 1 March 2016.

8. “A short history of Nauru, Australia’s dumping ground for refugees,” by Ben Doherty, The Guardian, 9 August 2016.

9. “Kenya uses wildlife as barter for UN seat,” IOL, 14 Nov. 2005