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UN Security Council: How much does a seat worth?

The 2013 United Nations Security Council election will be held next week during the annual UN General Assembly. As the UN’s most powerful agency, the Security Council has 15 seats, filled by five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK, and US) and ten non-permanent members. Each year, half of the non-permanent members are elected for a two-year term. The five new members will take up their seats on January 1, 2014 and will serve until December 31, 2015.

The five current members that will end their term this year include Morocco, Togo, Guatemala, Pakistan, Azerbaijan. Candidates for these seats include Chad, Chile, Gambia, Georgia, Lithuania, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. It is notable that most of these countries are not big economic and political powers, and if “power politics” is true, why would these states even attempt to run in the first place? The campaign is expensive itself, and if elected, active participation in the Security Council is an even more expensive diplomatic activity. New Zealand, for example, has already started the campaign to win a seat for the 2015-2016 term.

So just why would small states want to get a seat at the Security Council? According to a Journal of Political Economy paper by Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker of Harvard, a country’s U.S. aid increases by 59 percent and its U.N. aid by 8 percent when it rotates onto the council.

… we have argued that nonpermanent members of the U.N. Security Council receive extra foreign aid from the United States and the United Nations, especially during years in which the attention focused on the council is greatest. Our results suggest that council membership itself, and not simply some omitted variable, drives the aid increases. On average, the typical developing country serving on the council can anticipate an additional $16 million from the United States and $1 million from the United Nations. During important years, these numbers rise to $45 million from the United States and $8 million from the United Nations. Finally, the U.N. finding may actually be further evidence of U.S. influence: UNICEF, an organization over which the United States has historically had great control, seems to be driving the increase in U.N. aid.

That sounds like other countries may want to give favor to these non-permanent members in exchange for votes, and this sounds like a persuadable theory. But here Kuziemko and Werker held back.

What do these results imply about the politics of U.N. aid disbursement? Since the Security Council effect is limited to UNICEF and, to a lesser extent, the UNDP, the findings do not seem to describe a setting in which many smaller players are trading influence for aid. Of course a more detailed analysis of agency leadership and vote patterns might uncover more subtle manifestations of logrolling. However, these results do provide positive support for the U.S. power hypothesis. As some of the funding for U.N. agencies is in the form of voluntary contributions earmarked by donors for specific projects, these findings should not be seen as evidence that the United States is abusing its leadership at U.N. agencies to spend other donors’ monies in the U.S. national interest. Yet the findings are suggestive that the United States is using UNICEF, and possibly the UNDP, as a vehicle in the conduct of its foreign policy.

Here I find it difficult to understand why there is a positive correlation between seats and aids. Kuziemko and Werker seem to suggest that there is a correlation but not a causation, and they did not explain why countries would receive more aids when they are on the Security Council. And if the U.S. wants to “control” the other non-permanent members by providing aids, it should support the smallest and weakest states to join the Security Council; this would be quite contrary to the fact that over 70 UN Member States have never been Members of the Security Council.

Anyway, the study was far short of a vote-buying study, which I would have hoped for (because it would be more interesting), but Kuziemko and Werker explained why such a study would be difficult in practice in the end of their paper.

Ideally, a study of vote buying in the United Nations would test for the ability of Security Council aid to influence actual voting. Unfortunately, this is difficult for two reasons. First, we cannot observe the counterfactual: how the country would have voted in the absence of vote‐buying activity. Second, votes themselves are strategic. Agenda setters typically know, before putting a resolution up for a vote, the preferences of each member. Perhaps this is why most Security Council resolutions are passed unanimously and why failed resolutions are rare; recall that the 2003 resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq never actually came to a vote. As a result of these identification problems, we believe that actual outlays of aid are the most trustworthy way to measure the presence of vote buying in the Security Council. By providing extra aid to nonpermanent members of the council, especially during years in which council votes are especially important, agenda setters have implicitly revealed their faith in the Security Council’s relevance in world affairs.

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