The Price of Peace

How much is a U.N. blue helmet actually worth?


In November of last year, Congolese rebels from the M23 movement advanced on Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city. As the rebels took the city, the U.N. peacekeepers deployed there stood by, never firing a shot. That dismal performance revived a longstanding debate about the value of the U.N.’s signature activity. The spectacle of Syrian rebels capturing dozens of peacekeepers in the Golan Heights has reinforced the perception of impotence. But the United Nations — and a number of outside observers — contend that, even with their profound limitations, peacekeepers at least mitigate ongoing conflict and help prevent the recurrence of conflict once it has subsided.

The debate over the political and military value of peacekeepers won’t be resolved anytime soon. Financially, however, the worth of a peacekeeper is clear: $1,028. That’s the monthly sum the United Nations pays to states, per soldier, when they contribute peacekeepers to duly authorized missions. It’s a dollar figure that hasn’t changed much since the early 1990s, even as U.N. peacekeeping has closed some missions, opened others, and undergone significant reform. The static compensation rate has emerged as a significant point of tension in New York, primarily between the states that contribute most troops to missions and those states that foot the bill for peacekeeping.

While there are exceptions, U.N. peacekeeping is an activity mostly paid for by the rich world and carried out by troops from poorer states. The leading troop contributing states (TCCs) are Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda. The top funders are the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. Combined, these countries cover well over 50 percent of the peacekeeping tab, while offering fewer troops than diminutive Jordan. The United States alone pays 27 percent but provides a grand total of 109 peacekeepers. "With a few exceptions," notes George Washington University scholar Paul Williams, "the West has basically left peacekeeping operations." Turtle Bay blogger Colum Lynch recently described the structure as "the U.N.’s own caste system."

Those states providing the manpower believe they are long overdue for a raise. "If your salary had only gone up a little bit since the mid 1990s would you be happy?" asks Williams. The TCCs point out that their soldiers operate in dangerous environments on behalf of the international community. The deaths of five Indian peacekeepers in south Sudan last month — killed when the convoy they were escorting was ambushed by rebels — was just the latest example of the costs. In the last decade, more than 800 peacekeepers have died while on mission.

Peacekeeping has always entailed risks, but the kind of missions the United Nations has launched since 1990 have often been especially risky. Cold War peacekeeping missions were usually interposed between organized national armies, with the consent of all parties. Most post-1990 missions have been sent into complex internal conflicts in which the consent of the parties is less certain. "Increasingly, U.N. peacekeepers operate in high-risk environments, where the quest for peace and stability is elusive," U.N. Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous wrote recently.   

For several years, TCCs have insisted during meetings of the U.N.’s budget committee that the organization increase the base compensation rate. Each time, however, the TCCs faced skepticism from the large funding states. The overall cost of U.N. peacekeeping has climbed to more than $7 billion a year, amid a climate of austerity. The European Union has called for "strict budgetary discipline" in peacekeeping. But there’s also an element of mistrust.

The United States and other large funding states have insisted that TCCs provide information on the actual costs that they incur when they deploy peacekeepers. In 2009, all contributing states agreed in principle to provide cost metrics, but very few have actually done so. "The actual cost structure for most TCCs in providing their troops is a big, black box," said one diplomat from a leading funder. "With a few exceptions, TCCs have not been responsive to their agreement to provide data."

The usually unspoken concern among leading funders is that U.N. peacekeeping is actually a money-maker for a number of poorer states, even at current compensation levels. Some TCCs pass on to their troops the full U.N. reimbursement amounts. Uruguay, for example, pays its soldiers their normal salary plus the U.N. reimbursement. But other TCCs pay their soldiers only their normal salaries, pocketing the remainder. These states may be able to supplement their defense spending with U.N. funds. Two scholars who examined Bangladesh’s role in peacekeeping identified the financial motive as important:

The financial benefits accrued by Bangladeshi peacekeepers thus play an important role in supporting the economy. Official sources indicate that during 2001-10, the government received $1.28 billion from the UN as compensation for troop contributions, contingent-owned equipment, and other forms of compensation. UN peacekeeping helps the Bangladesh Army to purchase and maintain military equipment that it would not be able to obtain under normal circumstances and to reward its personnel.

Even when TCCs pass on U.N. compensation directly to their soldiers, the sums can create a strong incentive from within the ranks to participate. A Pakistani police official wrote that the U.N. postings "represent a once-in-a-career opportunity to generate savings and gain some financial security." Still, most TCCs strongly resist the notion that they or their soldiers participate for financial reasons. Fearful of offending the countries that provide forces. funding states are cautious about making their concern explicit.

Funding states have other concerns that make them wary of an across-the-board increase in compensation. They note that troops from some TCCs often show up with inadequate or inoperative equipment, but still receive reimbursements for the equipment. An expert panel appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the problem:

There are examples from the field of contingents arriving in theatre without proper training and without the promised equipment and support. There have also been instances where troops have been unable to perform competently the tasks assigned to them. Some troop-contributing countries place restrictions on the use of their troops. These restrictions keep them out of action when their contribution is often most needed, putting at risk other contingents and the mission itself.

TCCs have their own complaints, which go well beyond the rate of compensation. They note that the U.N. often pays them late, in large part because funding states are behind on their peacekeeping dues. They complain that leading troop contributors are not well represented in the senior ranks of the U.N. bureaucracy. They argue that the Security Council — which authorizes and provides overall guidance to peacekeeping forces — does not consult adequately with the states that are actually putting boots on the ground. (Even more broadly, many TCCs chafe at the continuing f
ailure of Security Council reform, which might give some of the top contributors greater voice in the U.N.’s premier decision-making body.) 

For the moment, at least, the large funders and the large contributors have papered over their differences. Earlier this month, the U.N.’s budget committee approved key elements of the expert panel report. The package reform deal includes a 6.75 percent increase in the compensation rate across the board, longer deployments for peacekeepers (which should reduce transport and training costs), and bonuses for contingents willing to take on especially risky duties. The agreement provides that the U.N. can dock payments to countries whose troops don’t have functioning equipment. And the budget committee also endorsed a new method for surveying certain TCCs about their actual costs.

There’s still potential for the agreement to slowly come unstuck. States have to actually implement the reforms, which is never a given. Whether the largest contributing states will participate in the new cost survey — a key demand of funding states — remains uncertain. "The root problems may not have disappeared," said one TCC diplomat. Meanwhile, the demand for blue helmets shows no signs of abating. A new operation is gearing up in Mali, and a Syria mission remains possible. The organization will only be able to keep up if the truce holds between those who supply the manpower and those who pay for it.

 Twitter: @multilateralist
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