Published September 2023
Financing the United Nations for people and planet
By Donald Kaberuka

Donald Kaberuka is an economist and Chairman and Managing Partner of South Bridge, a pan-African financial advisory and investment company. Previous roles include serving as Chairperson of the Board of the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria between 2019 and 2023; President of the African Development Bank from 2005 to 2015; and Minister of Finance and Economic Planning in Rwanda from 1997 to 2005. Donald Kaberuka was also Special Envoy of the African Union on Financing, the Peace Fund and COVID-19 response, and is currently the African Union High Representative for Financing, the Peace Fund and COVID-19 response. He is a member of the UN High-Level Independent Panel on the Sahel. Other roles include serving on the Board of Trustees of several organisations and think tanks, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Center for Global Development, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the Brookings Institution and the London School of Economics. Additionally, he serves on the International Advisory Council of Standard Chartered Bank and is Co-Chair of the Council on State Fragility.


How to get funding levels from billions to trillions was a major challenge. In the light of recent events, the post-COVID-19 pandemic era, we are witnessing a rise in poverty  and inequality around the globe. This has further been deepened by the Russian aggression on Ukraine, rising interest rates and deteriorating credit markets in developing countries that is causing hyper-inflation and a high cost of living crisis.

The global economy, including the large emerging markets, that have driven growth over the last two decades, are facing slow growth. In addition, these countries have other priorities, such as energy security, defence and, eventually, things like the reconstruction of Ukraine. This is diverting attention and resources from how we fund the global commons via the United Nations, its agencies and the Bretton Woods system.

In low-income and emerging market countries, growth prospects have deteriorated amid tightening credit conditions, debt and rising interest rates (with US$ 1.5 trillion in debt service due over the past five years). This has squeezed fiscal space everywhere and necessarily limited the level of available resources. And yet the reality, as the recent COVID-19 crisis showed, the world does not lack resources but social justice, equity and instruments that can serve all of humanity, not some.

The inequitable access to vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic is a glaring example. While the rallying cry was ‘nobody is safe until everyone is safe’, in the end short-term national self-interest prevailed.

Is a peace dividend possible?

One way the UN’s goals can be funded is by reducing global military spending. In the times we live in and based on the geopolitics emanating out of the Ukraine war, this might look like a far cry. However, the reality is that expenditure on global armaments has reached unprecedented levels. Military spending rose for the eighth consecutive year said the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) 2022 annual report. The total global military expenditure increasing by 3.7% in real terms to reach a new high of US$ 2,240 billion in 2022.1 Military expenditure in Europe saw its steepest year-on-year increase in at least 30 years. Conversely, military aid to Ukraine and concerns about a heightened threat from Russia strongly influenced the spending decisions of many other states, as did tensions in East Asia. Some of the sharpest increases were seen in Finland (+36%), Lithuania (+27%), Sweden (+12%) and Poland (+11%).2

The United States remains by far the biggest military spender in the world. US military spending reached US$ 877 billion in 2022, which was 39% of the total global military spending and three times more than the amount spent by China. The 0.7% real terms increase in US spending in 2022 would have been even greater had it not been for the highest levels of inflation seen in the country since 1981.3

China remained the world’s second-largest military spender, allocating an estimated US$ 292 billion in 2022. This was 4.2% more than in 2021 and 63% more than in 2013. China’s military expenditure has increased for 28 consecutive years. Meanwhile, Japan’s military spending increased by 5.9% between 2021 and 2022, reaching US $46 billion, or 1.1% of the country’s gross domestic product. This was the highest level of Japanese military spending since 1960.4 A new national security strategy published in 2022 sets out ambitious plans to increase Japan’s military capability over the coming decade in response to perceived growing threats from China, North Korea and Russia.

This trend is replicated in other rich countries with Europe set to register record spending.

Reform of the international financial architecture

Nonetheless there is no effective intermediation from the Global North, where real interest rates are now negative, to the Global South, where opportunities abound but are deemed ‘too risky’, especially at this point of a debt overhang in many countries. This is the dilemma that the world needs to resolve. The perceived risk needs to be mitigated; de-risking instruments need to multiply. The dynamic demographic of the Global South provides a win–win opportunity and the Global South has to invest in its people, its human capital, in stability and in innovation at a time when the resources are dwindling.

Breaking down the artificial silos that would isolate one set of rights from another is imperative if we are to forge a renewed consensus around the UDHR. As Article 2 sets out, ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.’

Towards a ‘just energy transition’ from the ‘digital divide’ to digital opportunities

One issue the UN and its membership has to address is the matter of a ‘just energy transition’. Over 800 million people worldwide live without access to energy. Climate finance for a just transition is underwhelming. A volatile economic and geopolitical environment, plus the Ukraine war, has shifted attention away from adaptation to energy security.

Developing countries will struggle to have their voice heard on issues of financing adaptation and energy needs for the 800 million people around the world, let alone that some of the proposals such as the European Union carbon border taxes will lock them out of markets. This is the general trend in the complicated debate around the carbon markets and to secure meaningful commitments from the rich countries in order to finance their energy transition.

Thus, a new divergence in energy transition is arising between the developed and the developing world. This is not necessary; the resources can be found. This argument applies mutatis mutandis from the digital divide to food security to pandemic preparedness.

The way ahead

The point to end is where one began, the world needs a strong, well-resourced UN for the new tasks as a result of the current global mutations. The goodwill of Member States will be as necessary, with gridlock in some decision-making processes and misalignment among big powers, it is time to look beyond the statutory obligations of Member States and attract means and capital from private markets.

This is the only locus where the quantum of resources needed can be found. The UN cannot resolve everything or resolve them alone. Indeed, on some issues, such as peace and security, regional organisations now have to play a larger role, but the UN remains the glue in the global system. It will play that role effectively if it gives greater meaning to the ‘We the People’ in its charter, giving voice to all, adapting to the changing environment and having resources commensurate with its mandate.

However, Member States must individually and collectively – increasingly shoulder the responsibilities which the multilateral architecture is no longer able to execute effectively, such as building effective health systems for pandemic preparedness; investing in the youth, in peace and stability; and expanding opportunities for working together, such as in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area where African countries are concerned.

This is what will create zones of increasing wealth, opportunities for generating needed resources both nationally, regionally and continentally, and fund and address global public goods.



Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), ‘Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2022’, SIPRI Fact Sheet, April 2023, p. 1,


SIPRI, ‘World military expenditure reaches new record high as European spending surges’, 24 April 2023, expenditure-reaches-new-record-high-european-spending-surges.


SIPRI (note 1), p. 3.

SIPRI (note 2).