What Trump Got Right About the UN
“The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” Donald Trump proclaimed over Twitter as 2016 came to a close.
That tweet sent proponents of the global institution into paroxysms of more tweeting and op-ed writing. The frenzy grew with the leak in late January of a draft executive order titled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations.” That document called for a 40 percent decrease in financial support to international organizations, including the UN. On March 16, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney confirmed that the Trump administration would be “reducing funding to the UN and to various foreign aid programs”—though specific numbers have yet to be announced.
Many defenders of the UN all but predict global calamity should the U.S. take a big step back from the organization. However, that assumes both the superpower and the UN have been genuinely committed to addressing world poverty, government brutality, and armed conflict. The reality is the organization has been in a state of crisis that began long before Trump’s entrance onto the world stage. His tweet expresses a view shared by those who support the UN’s goal of promoting international peace yet see it failing to live up to its promises.
While the UN has been struggling to deliver on its agenda for more than a decade, only in recent years have the scandals epitomizing that failure spilled into the press—including peacekeepers being involved in sexual abuse cases in the Central African Republic and in the spreading of cholera in Haiti. The idealized images of blue-helmeted peacekeepers and aid workers handing out bags of rice to poor people are now things of the past.
“Accountability has been selective, and the focus has been on low-level people and not high-level people, who may also be culpable,” says Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist and assistant professor at Yale, who’s written a book on the violent conflict in the Central African Republic. “The head of the UN human-rights council knew about allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in CAR but stayed silent. Why has there been no accounting for that? And don’t even get me started on Haiti, small steps toward cholera accountability notwithstanding.”
Peacekeeping missions, most of which are in Africa, cost billions of dollars to run, yet they lack financial and institutional transparency and often fail to protect victims of war and rebuild deeply divided societies. According to a report in Foreign Policy, UN bureaucrats have wasted half a billion dollars on administrative software programs that few know how to use. The bureaucracy is plagued by “colossal mismanagement” and lacks accountability, according to Anthony Banbury, a former UN assistant secretary-general for field support who led the organization’s response to the Ebola epidemic that devastated West Africa in 2014 and 2015.
I covered that epidemic as a journalist based in Liberia, home to what was once one of the largest UN peacekeeping missions in the world. The juxtaposition of the hardship and poverty of the country against the perks and privileges of the UN staff is disturbing. I was among expatriates enjoying themselves in the evening at Monrovia’s finest new restaurant, the Living Room, months after the regional epidemic ended. Outside, the city was dark but for the lights at the port and the tall UN compound beyond. We were perched atop Monrovia’s grandest hotel, bathed in golden light, eating Thai food—with the option of Japanese—and sipping French wine, paying $7 for bottled water in a country where the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day. Whether we were humanitarian workers, journalists, members of the local elite, peacekeepers, spies, or mining magnates, we all shared in this thoughtless decadence.
In many countries, UN and foreign aid workers glide around in luminous white 4x4s and live in plush apartments with monthly rentals on a par with prices in London and New York. Comfortable and secure compounds are important when the situation is dire. But in Liberia, where expatriates enjoy a great deal of freedom, the UN and aid world within the city is “Funrovia,” a well-oiled, climate-controlled zone of swimming pools and deck chairs—surrounded by barbed wire. The hum of appliances is interrupted only when the generators are refueled.
Outside, few Liberians have access to electricity, and running water is a dream. Expats pay monthly apartment rents that can reach more than 50 times the average monthly salary of $60 to $150 for Liberians with full-time employment, itself a rare situation. The security guards and maids who staff these residences must commute from the far outskirts of the capital, because they can no longer afford to live in the city where they work.
That’s become the status quo since the peacekeeping mission arrived in Liberia in 2003, at the end of the country’s civil war. Little has improved in more than a decade. Electricity is scarce and the most expensive in the world. Only the most privileged of Liberians have water running through their taps; the rest are left to haul it from rivers, wells, and pumps. Much of the country is underemployed. The few who had full-time jobs in iron ore mines and rubber plantations—Liberia’s primary exports—have been laid off because of the decline of the global commodities market.
The meal I shared with two friends at the Monrovia hotel cost 127 times more than the rice and soup most Liberians buy from a cookshop. And that kind of disparity isn’t limited to Liberia. We could have been in almost any post-conflict country in the world with a UN peacekeeping mission. These missions cost billions of dollars to run, are monstrously bureaucratic, and, once launched, take on a life of their own, refusing to end as their expatriate bureaucracies suck in funding. Similar missions—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and the Republic of South Sudan, for example—have been called failures, and yet that hasn’t resulted in their reform or withdrawal.
At its height, the United Nations Mission in Liberia played host to 15,000 troops; it’s spent more than $7 billion in a nation of 4 million people. Liberia has been lauded as a success. Most of the mission’s peacekeepers will depart a few months after presidential elections in October, handing responsibility for security back to the Liberian government. But the mission’s legacy remains murky. Many diplomatic officials and observers, including the former head of mission, Karin Landgren, have expressed concerns that the economic inequality and culture of impunity that led to Liberia’s civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003 and claimed at least 250,000 lives, haven’t changed.
The UN as an institution rarely considers the impact of its peacekeeping missions or “interventions” on local economies. Nor does it measure the effects of its presence or work. Most of the money that goes into these missions is spent on foreign contractors, consultants, and staff, with only a small portion trickling down to local businesses. In nations where structural inequality and the plundering of natural resources remain key causes of conflict, the UN does little to stimulate the economy or buy from local suppliers or traders.
It’s the same story, be it Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Juba in South Sudan, or Bamako in Mali, says Kathleen Jennings, a researcher who’s studying the economic impact of peacekeeping missions. “The danger is that this [kind of] economy is essentially locking in hierarchies that were underlying the conflict in the first place, that is the people who had the most at the end of the war,” she says. Jennings adds that locals often see the UN as fundamentally corrupt and ineffective.
The UN’s wastefulness and sclerosis doesn’t mean the U.S. can claim some moral high ground. Washington, like every major power, has always played its own games within the organization. The Security Council has long been a cynical playground for the U.S., Russia, China, and others as they pursue their own interests. Furthermore, Trump’s emerging policies regarding refugees, Muslims, and immigrants are likely to affect global stability, as is the possibility that his administration could flout more international agreements and conventions than the U.S. already does.
But that means it’s even more imperative for the UN to find a way to restore its floundering raison d’être—because it may have to pursue its agenda without the same amount of U.S. donor dollars. At the moment, Washington contributes about 22 percent of the UN’s regular budget. In addition, it pays almost 30 percent of the organization’s peacekeeping costs. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley says she intends to work with Secretary-General António Guterres “on the efficiencies that are needed in peacekeeping reform, which we spent a ton of money on.” Perhaps a substantial defunding may finally force the UN to reform.
MacDougall is a journalist based in Monrovia, Liberia.