Sunday, March 15, 2009

UN chief tries to smooth over 'deadbeat' quip

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ Secretary General, is trying to bounce back from an unfortunate choice of words while visiting Capitol Hill. On Thursday Ban accused the US of being a “deadbeat” because of its often late payments of its UN dues - the United States currently owes $1 billion in back payments to the UN, a figure Ban said will soon climb to $1.6 billion. Ban said that in these economically trying times, the UN needs its full support of all its members, which led to the deadbeat remark.

Of course the term ‘deadbeat’ got tongues wagging all over DC, with opinion running from it being an ‘unfortunate’ choice of words, to others taking “great umbrage” at the term, even though a number of Senators apparently privately agreed with Ban. In the past the United States has withheld its UN payments as a way of trying to pressure the body into conforming to America's worldview. President Obama has pledged to change the US relationship with the United Nations, another relationship that declined under the Bush administration. President Bush viewed the UN as more of a hindrance than a help in international affairs, and tried to build international coalitions outside of its influence (like the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ put together in 2003 to force Iraq to comply with UN mandates - rather ironic if you think about it).

While we’re on the topic, this is another example of the odd relationship the United States has with foreign development aid. Many politicians in Washington will be quick to point out that the US gives more in foreign aid than any other country in the world, which is one of those type of facts that is both true and false at the same time. It is true that the US gives more in dollars than any other country, of course the American economy is also larger than any other on Earth, so in a sense this is to be expected. As a portion of Gross National Income (GNI) though, the US is at the bottom of the list, in a tie with Greece; Norway and Sweden are tops (as of 2007, the most recent figures available). GNI is the preferred way of assessing these sorts of things since it is based on a percentage of a given country’s national income, a way that takes the relative size of national economies out of the equation.

The UN has suggested that donor countries set a target of giving 0.7% of GNI in foreign development aid by 2015. By that measure the US, at 0.16% of GNI, has a long way to go.
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