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Games governments play.
How the USA obstructs the mission of the United Nations.

Last updated:  18 June 1999


On 20 October 1998, Dr. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), issued a press release in which she stated:

UNFPA deeply regrets today's news that the United States will not include funding for UNFPA in appropriations for the coming financial year. The decision penalizes not only UNFPA but the millions of ordinary women and men on whose behalf we work. It will inevitably reduce our ability to implement vital programmes in the area of reproductive health and rights.

What had happened? Why did the USA wish to "penalize" millions of women in countries far away from God's Own Country? And why did they attack UNFPA for US $20 million, which is the sum they contribute to the programs of this UN agency? Global politics in practice?

We tend to believe that the world is becoming a "global village", as if the diversity of Mother Earth could be pressed into such a small device of human societies. It reminds me on the phrase of "we are all sitting in the same boat", and I always respond: "perhaps, but who gives the commands?"

The United Nations

International politics has always been a favorite topic of national debates, particularly when powerful groups do not want to discuss domestic issues. Foreign aid is another topic of the same quality. In most political debates on international relations, the public is not informed about (a) the scale of the financial involvement of its respective country, and (b) the political frame of reference for international politics in a world, which continuously becomes globalized not only as regards financial markets, but each and every detail of everyday life of the citizens in their respective countries.

In a press release by the staff organization of UN in September 1996 it was stated:

The budget for the UN's core functions -- the Secretariat operations in New York, Geneva, Nairobi, Vienna and five Regional Commissions -- is $1.3 billion a year. This is about 4 per cent of New York City's annual budget -- and nearly a billion dollars less than the yearly cost of Tokyo's Fire Department. It is $3.7 billion less than the annual budget of New York's State University system.

The USA's share of the UN's regular budget is $321 million a year -- the equivalent of $1.24 per American.

You may not believe it, but the United Nations are not an expensive, luxurious agency. As a matter of fact, given the enormous program of work, it is a rather inexpensive agency compared to others.

The member states of the United Nations subscribe to the by-laws of the organization, which defines rights and duties alike. The guiding principle is: one nation, one vote. This principle is not implemented to the fullest extent as the permanent members of the Security Council of the UN have a veto-right when it comes to essential questions of peace-keeping. To a certain degree, the permanent members, i.e. China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and USA, can determine what the United Nations will adopt as their policies simply by using their veto-power.

This right, however, does not apply to the technical UN organizations like the World Health Organization or the United Nations Populations Fund. In these organizations, all of the member states have to agree upon the program of work and other matters.

Neither UN Headquarters nor the technical agencies are organizations to which member states donate money without getting anything back. The UN relies strongly on the work of consultants, i.e. experts from member states who provide input into respective programs. Staff of the UN and its agencies is hired from member states according to the percentage of membership dues in regard to the budget of the organization. Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA have more staff employed by the UN than their quota permits them. The simple reason: the UN is mainly working in English and with the English system of bureaucratic procedures. Citizens of the said countries have an advantage against, say, Japanese or Chinese citizens.

A closer look at the day-to-day operations of the UN will reveal that the influence of the English culture is far greater than many expect it to be. In other words, there is hardly any reason for these countries to complain of inequalities or even disadvantages as their political and technical preferences are concerned.

The UNFPA case

I have provided a bit more detail about the background of the UN in order to be able to analyze the UNFPA case more precisely. It is with surprise to note that the United Nations Population Fund has come under such hostile scrutiny by the USA.

UNFPA has a proven record of good practice, probably much more so than other UN agencies:

UNFPA-supported programmes have succeeded in raising the use of family planning and reducing reliance on abortion. All UNFPA programmes are based on the principle that individuals have the right to make their own decisions in regard to the size and spacing of the family and to the means and information to do so. UNFPA reproductive health programmes do not promote abortion nor provide assistance for abortion services.

Falling birth and population growth rates in developing countries demonstrate beyond question the practical validity of promoting reproductive health and rights as ends in themselves, as well as the means to achieve smaller families and slower population growth (20 October 1998 UNFPA press release).

Reproductive health means: empowerment of women. It refers to diminish inequalities between women and men and it operates under the priority to give women (back) control over their health. This does not seem to be an attractive perspective for the US-Government. One can only speculate why, and I leave it open to the reader to find her own conclusion.

Women's health has always been a controversial issue with UN agencies. UNFPA is only the last case in a series of interventions by powerful countries into the program of work of these agencies. It is well-known, for example, that the World Health Organization has been put under enormous pressure for decades as regards reproductive health. This pressure has been organized by mainly Catholic countries which reject the idea of artificial contraception and family planning. An interesting document in this regard is available on the Internet at: It provides access to documents on the influence of the Holy Sea on WHO's family planning program and gives insight into global power politics.

We need to be aware that not one aspect of UN agencies' programs of work is a-political. Public health and development are too often seen in terms of charitable enterprises, when in reality they refer to matters of global power-structures, economies and the prevalence of certain ideologies. Unfortunately, we tend to view matters concerning Mother Earth in fairly egotistical, i.e. national categories when we should know that they are international in essence. This is not only a problem with the USA, but relates to other so-called developed countries as well.

National governments pretend that contributions to international organizations are lost monies. They do not state that up to 95% of the contributions to foreign aid projects worldwide flow back to the donor countries in terms of consultants' fees, products which need to be bought in donor countries and maintenance services. Foreign aid provides employment in donor countries, it constitutes hidden subsidies to the domestic economy, which is one of the reasons why we see so many unsustainable development projects. The recipient countries simply cannot afford to maintain the facilities often provided by the so-called developed countries.

Reproductive health is an example, which does not consume much in terms of sophisticated technology, but refers more importantly to the social development of the population in countries active in this domain. Social development goes hand in hand with education. And education always relates to degrees of enlightenment. Perhaps it is this particular aspect of reproductive health, which donor countries like the USA do not appreciate at all.

Taking a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the key documents each UN member state has to sign and ratify before becoming a regular member of the UN, it becomes clear that education, equality, and enlightenment are seen as key topics of good governance. No member state can claim to act according to the Human Rights Declaration when it obstructs programs of reproductive health which precisely aim at improving the living conditions of millions of women and subsequently their children. The UNFPA case demonstrates that the USA violate the Human Rights Declaration of the United Nations.

Coming back to the UNFPA case, it is clear that the decision to withdraw funds from its program of work will have serious effects. According to the press release of Dr. Nafis Sadik from 20 October 1998, UNFPA estimates the effects as follows:

In one year alone, the impact of the United States' decision to withdraw funding from UNFPA will be to deprive 870,000 women of effective modern contraception. Over 520,000 will end up not using any method. Non-use and use of ineffective methods will result in:

  • 1,200 maternal and 22,500 infant deaths;
  • 15,000 life-threatening illnesses and injuries to mothers during pregnancy and childbirth.
  • 500,000 unwanted pregnancies, resulting in:
  • 234,000 unwanted births;
  • 200,000 abortions.

I wonder whether President Clinton, his advisers, and the interest groups behind the decision of the US Government are willing to accept the responsibility for the losses of life and the harm their decision will bring to countries far away from the posh environments of Washington DC.

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