Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Small is beautiful: Taxation and representation in the United Nations

Published on 26 January 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Very few international writers have ever cared to study the scale of assessments of the United Nations. The Fifth Committee is probably the most famous among the six main committees of the General Assembly, but it is famous only among practitioners of multilateral diplomacy. And even then, not all of them; just those based in New York.

Had they studied the scale of assessments, they would have found one of the keys for a decent and comprehensive understanding of how the activities of the United Nations are funded.

A brief but telling use of figure follows. If you did not like mathematics in primary school, do not run away! I will try to keep my example simple.

The current number of United Nations members is 193. The UN Charter says that each member of the General Assembly shall have one vote. It also says that decisions of the General Assembly on important questions shall be made by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting.

If you ask me, all decisions made by the world body should be important. However, a majority of the members present and voting may be enough for the all other questions which are presumably unimportant.

Often, not all 193 members can, want, or may be present and voting. But let us not enter into details and instead go to the links between representation and taxation.

The contributions assessed by the General Assembly for 2010–2012 varied between 0.001% (39 member states) and 22.000% (one member state).

Theoretically, a resolution of the General Assembly on non-important questions can be adopted with 2 votes in favour, 1 vote against and 190 abstentions. Yeah, this is highly unlikely! But if you do not trust theory, check the records of the General Assembly in 2008 and you will discover that a resolution on a highly sensitive political issue was adopted with 39 votes in favour, 7 against, and 100 abstentions.

Yet, we may choose not to work with exaggerations and hasty generalisations. Let us suppose that all member states are present and voting, every delegation has made up its mind, and no one abstains. The majority at its maximum would mean 97 votes.

The Assembly can reach that decision but summing up the votes of 97 members states placed at the bottom of the scale of assessments, which pay between 0.001 and 0.014% of the regular budget of the United Nations. Their 97 added contributions would sum up to 0.383%. In other words, a total contribution of less of half of 1% will be enough to adopt a resolution. 

If the issue is qualified as important by the Charter, all members are present and voting, and no one is instructed to comfortably abstain, 129 votes are needed. Well, the cost in contributions of a successful vote can be 1.399%, if 129 low-level contributors from the floor up to the ceiling (between 0.001 and 0.065%) vote in favour. In other words, the rest of the 64 member states, which provide together 98.601% of the budget expenses should accept defeat and pay the bills when they come.

Why is it so? How are UN expenses borne and how come the system still works? Diplo’s course on multilateral diplomacy – Current Issues in the United Nations – is one of the places where such issues are discussed and explained. But it is interesting that such issues, crucial to global governance, do not crop up in the social media streams which flow past us. How do you think such issues could be brought to the media agendas, in a meaningful way?

Related events

Load more

Related resources

Load more

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog