The United Nation’s budget seems healthy, but across the world missions are facing alarming shortfalls.
United Nations peacekeepers face a credibility crisis. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
There are more than 100,000 peacekeepers wearing the blue helmet in 16 missions across the world, from Kosovo in eastern Europe to western Sahara in north Africa. Faced by multiple crises across the world, the UN will spend in excess of $8bn on its peacekeeping missions this year, an increase of 17% on 2015.
But with criticism of operations in Congo mounting, and a sex abuse scandal dominating stories about the mission in Central African Republic, UN peacekeeping faces a crisis of credibility. In light of this, we thought it was time we looked at where the money from peacekeeping goes. Here’s what we found.
The overall budget is equivalent to 1% of US defence spending
The first thing to note about the peacekeeping budget is how small it is, at least when compared with the defence budgets of national governments.
Today, the UN peacekeeping force stands at a little over 100,000. That might sound like a lot, but the US currently has 40,000 troops in Germany, almost double the size of the UN peacekeeping force in Congo – a country that has seen decades of continuous fighting.
But the main reason for that disparity lies somewhere else, according to Alexandra Novosseloff, a senior visiting fellow at the Center on International Cooperation in New York. “Historically, peacekeeping operations are not considered as purely military interventions,” she said. “The assessed contributions are paid through civilian budgets by each and every member state. These budgets are more limited.”
There are also differences in equipment. While the US was able to spend the equivalent of the entire peacekeeping budget on 34 F35 joint strike fighters last year, the relative lack of funds at the UN has left some missions overstretched.
A review of peacekeeping by the high-level independent panel on UN peace operations (Hippo), published in June last year, found that missions lacked “the specific equipment, intelligence, logistics, capabilities and specialised military preparation required” to engage in military counter-terrorism operations.
Further questions have been raised about certain missions’ abilities to carry out their mandates. In December 2014, Reuters reported that due to a lack of funding and personnel, peacekeepers in the country were “struggling to contain a growing humanitarian disaster” in DRC’s mining region. Relief eventually came in the form of more troops to bolster the 451 soldiers in the affected region, but the story gives an indication of how overstretched peacekeepers are.
The budget for all medical care for the missions in 2016 stands at a little over $47m. To put that in context, a little known project known as “enterprise resource planning project” is budgeted for $31m this year, the equivalent of two-thirds of the medical budget. The project, which has proved controversial with UN officials due to delays and cost overruns in the buildup to its launch, has the stated aim to “streamline administrative practices and boost efficiency throughout the organisation”.
Medics in peacekeeping missions have long found themselves overstretched and underfunded. A 2009 audit of the UNmil mission in Liberia (UNmil) found inadequate training, no standard operating procedures, and lack of quality drugs being provided. Audits in 2009 and 2011 of the Ivory Coast mission (ONUCI) also found a lack of basic training.
More recently, a report by the International Peace Institute entitled Healing or Harming? United Nations Peacekeeping and Health noted there was a problem “of peacekeepers providing healthcare to the local population in situations where the quality of medical care provided to the mission’s own personnel is not always in accordance with WHO guidelines”.
Monusco: Decades old, with few results to speak of
The costliest UN mission is in Congo, where thousands of uniformed personnel are facing off against numerous warring factions. It’s a situation that hasn’t changed much in the years since the mission – previously Monuc but known as Monusco –came to be.
Monusco has a budget of $1.3bn this year. This pays for the 19,784 UN peacekeepers who are currently stationed in the country, 18,232 of which are military personnel. These forces face a fight with dozens of armed groups, predominantly from the east of the country, and operate in a country the size of western Europe.
Maria Lange, a director at International Alert, says that recently security has deteriorated in the region. “The current security context in the eastern part of the DRC is marked by a sharp rise in intercommunal violence and the proliferation of new, albeit small, armed groups,” she explained.
But with limited resources and a poor record of protecting civilians, criticism of Monusco has been frequent and vicious. On Twitter, the hashtag #MONUSELESS crops up whenever the mission hits the news, as it did earlier this when investigators found that UN peacekeepers had failed to prevent a recent massacre in the east of the country by Hutu rebels.
This year, the mission will spend $1.3m on consultants – outside groups, including NGOs, tasked with doing research and others tasks for the mission – and $8m on official travel. Medical expenditure counts for just under $2.3m.
Minusca: CAR sees huge cash injection, but problems remain
While Monusco is the most expensive operation, Minusca, the mission in Central African Republic, received the biggest increase in funding in 2016; rising 220% to over $800m, amid an intensification of fighting in the country.
Military and police personnel costs have increased by more than 300% to more than $350m, while spending on consultants, has increased by over 1,000% to $462,600. Medical spending increase to $9m, up 712% on the previous year, but this dwarfed by the $20m spent on communications, an increase of 37% on 2015.
But despite the increase in funds, the missions faces numerous problems, not least the sex abuse scandal currently making headlines across the world. Since last year, stories have emerged of UN peacekeepers abusing women and children in the country, often in exchange for food and clothing. The latest development in the scandal came in January, the UN human rights office found six more cases of UN peacekeepers allegedly abusing children in the country, with a seven-year-old girl among the victims.
Last month, Amnesty International warned that, despite the increase in funding, the UN mission in Central African Republic still had “severe weaknesses”, including a lack of training and equipment. One senior Minusca official reportedly told Amnesty: “When there’s gunfire, we can only send the guys in armoured vehicles. But several of these are currently out of service.”
In its rush to help Afghanistan, the humanitarian world risks superimposing costly, parallel systems that ignore what already exists: a functioning public health sector, Afghan NGOs waiting for support, and aid agencies that have operated amid a complex crisis for years. The West always acts like it knows better at the cost of local empowerment.