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Financing the United Nations: Explaining variation in how donors provide funding to the UN


When donors contemplate providing financial support to United Nations institutions they encounter a menu of funding options. Some UN institutions require mandatory dues, but most rely substantially on voluntary contributions, which donors can choose to earmark for specific purposes. How donors provide resources has widespread effects on the authority of UN governing bodies, donor control over UN programs, and the efficiency of UN operations. What explains how donors choose to fund UN programs and agencies? We advance a theory that emphasizes member state preferences over the affordability and policy substance of IO activity. Using data from two novel experiments and a case study of U.S. funding practices toward the United Nations (1945–1980s), we provide mixed-method evidence showing that a state is more likely to provide voluntary contributions when its preferences over the affordability and policy of IO activity differ from those of the governing coalition and more likely to provide mandatory contributions when its preferences are consistent with those of the governing coalition. Further, we demonstrate that preferences over policy substance are particularly important in explaining recent trends in donor earmarking.

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  1. The language used to refer to different contribution types varies across IOs, and across UN programs and agencies. Within the UN, “unrestricted contributions” are also referred to as unearmarked, multilateral, and general purpose. “Restricted contributions” are variously referred to as earmarked, non-core, negotiated, multi-bilateral, bilateral, directed multilateral, and special-purpose.

  2. On legitimacy benefits associated with multilateralism, see Pouliot (2011) and Milner and Tingley (2013).

  3. Other UN programs (discussed below) rely exclusively on voluntary contributions. UN Specialized Agencies, like the WHO and FAO rely on a combination of mandatory, unrestricted voluntary, and restricted voluntary contributions.

  4. For data on funding rules across UN programs, see Graham (2016).


  6. In the analysis we do not directly test whether respondents withhold funds. Rather, we infer that if they express a preference for complete control, they are more likely to withhold mandatory contributions.

  7. The Geneva Group is an informal group composed of the UN’s largest contributors, open to those that contribute more than 1 % of the regular budget. See Alvarez (1990–91), supranote 81.

  8. Participants’ ages range from 18 to 49 (mean: 20). 45 % of the participants identified as Democrat, 27 % as Republican, and 27 % as Independent. 22 % identified as White/Caucasian, 14 % as African American, 28 % as Asian, and 26 % as Hispanic. About 1.7 % of the participants identified as extremely conservative, 3.3 % extremely liberal, and 46 % identified as moderate, middle of the road.

  9. Using random assignment to determine which experiment a participant sees first helps guard against carryover effects, namely the possibility that exposure to one experiment influences the preferences respondents express in the second experiment. Even though the time lag between the two experiments is short, we believe that carryover from one experiment to the other is not serious problem in our study. In the online appendix, which can be found on the journal’s website, we show that experiment order does not have a statistically significant impact on funding choices.

  10. We present the texts of experimental protocols in the online appendix available on the journal’s website.

  11. To estimate these differences, we use Conover-Iman multiple-comparison tests for stochastic dominance with a Bonferroni correction, using Dinno (2014) command. These tests can be regarded as showing the differences in medians.

  12. We also observe that the funding preferences of respondents assigned to treatment conditions 1 (z = −2.84 p = 0.024), 2 (z = −4.76 p = 0.000), and 4 (z = −4.53 p = 0.001) differ significantly from the preferences of those assigned to the control condition. We did not observe that the funding choices of respondents assigned to condition 3 differed from those who were in the control condition (z = 0.14 p = 1.000). In the online appendix, available at the journal’s website, we provide further evidence for the effect of experimental treatments on participants’ preferences to fund UNFPA by regressing funding choices onto experimental conditions.

  13. In the online appendix, we report the results from multinomial logistic (MNL) regression models for all of our OL models as robustness checks. Substantive findings obtained from MNL estimations parallel the findings reported here. The appendix also reports the test results for the proportional odds assumption of OL as well as Hausman tests.

  14. For example, if a respondent is in condition 1, the Substance divergent variable has a value of “0” but the Affordability divergent variable takes on a value of “1” since participants in condition 1 were informed that America’s preferences over the size of UNFPA’ activity differ from those of the executive board yet there is agreement among donors on the agency’s policy priorities.

  15. While we do not have specific theoretical expectations regarding the impact of respondents’ gender identity, age, and family income on funding preferences, we nevertheless control for these factors in alternative model specifications reported in the online appendix. The coefficients for these variables do not reach statistical significance.

  16. This result might party be a function of the fact that a majority of the participants in our sample identified as moderate, middle of the road. When we take political party identification into account, we still do not find significant differences across democrats, republicans, and independents. Results are available upon request.

  17. The funding preferences of respondents assigned to treatment conditions 2 (z = −2.96 p = 0.017) and 4 (z = −3.0 p = 0.020) differ significantly from the preferences of those assigned to the control condition. We did not observe that the funding choices of respondents assigned to conditions 1 and 3 differed from those who were in the control condition.


  19. We thank one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing up this point.

  20. Our results do not change when we pool the data across the experiments. Estimations with the pooled data can be found in the online appendix available on this journal’s webpage.

  21. U.S. compliance data is found in General Assembly documents: A/80 1946, 2; A/377 1947; A/628, 7; A/954 1949, 5; A/1330 1950; A/1859 1951, 5; A/2161 1952; A/2461 1953; A/2716 1954; A/2951 1955; A/3121 1956; A/3714 1957; A/3890 1958; A/3890 1958.

  22. UN Yearbook 1946–47, 97.

  23. FRUS 1952–1954, Volume III. United Nations Affairs, Document 25.

  24. Quoted in Gerson 2000, p. 65.

  25. FRUS, 1969–1976. Volume V, United Nations, 1969–1972 (hereafter FRUS 1969–76), Document 147.

  26. FRUS, 1969–76, Document 150.

  27. FRUS, 1969–76, Document 150.

  28. FRUS, 1969–76, Document 174.

  29. FRUS, 1969–76, Document 186.

  30. FRUS, 1969–76, Document 186.

  31. FRUS, (1969–76). Document 147.

  32. Quoted in Kirkpatrick (1988), 270.

  33. House of Representatives. Foreign Assistance and Related Program Appropriations for 1982, Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations. Part 5., 525.

  34. UNDP and the GAO investigations found no basis for this claim.

  35. S.1196. International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1981.


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We thank Sarah Bush, Stephen Chaudoin, Vera Eichenauer, Joshua Kertzer, and Kathleen Powers, three anonymous reviewers, and the editor for valuable comments and suggestions, and Mark Paradis for research assistance.

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Correspondence to Erin R. Graham.

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The authors contributed equally and interactively to this article. The authors have multiple papers together, and the order of their names follows a principle of rotation.

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Bayram, A.B., Graham, E.R. Financing the United Nations: Explaining variation in how donors provide funding to the UN. Rev Int Organ 12, 421–459 (2017).

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  • International organization
  • United Nations
  • IO financing
  • Foreign aid