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Your UN Fifth Committee Quick Reference Guide

1 October 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Tips to make the process less painful and yield the results you want with the UN Fifth Committee quick reference guide.

Black and white photo of UN Fifth Committee members voting with hands in the air on 6 November 1963.
UN Fifth Committee vote on 6 Nov. 1963. Credit: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

This week, the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee starts its main session. Its primary focus between now and Christmas is reviewing and approving the regular budget, which includes the programme of work for UN Secretariat departments, offices, regional commissions as well as Special Political Missions, UNRWA and UNHCR. That means a lot of staff across the UN system will be presenting to, and answering questions from, the Fifth Committee, both in person and in writing.

Our spotlight this week is, therefore, on how the UN Fifth Committee functions and what that means for UN staff engaging and communicating with the Committee in the coming months. We provide concrete tips for how to frame presentations and written responses to the Committee, what to emphasize (or not) and how to facilitate constructive negotiations on your budget. This is your quick reference guide to engaging with the UN Fifth Committee.

The UN Fifth Committee process is unlike fundraising

Most people, quite logically, consider the Fifth Committee process as a resourcing exercise, and therefore naturally approach the process with similar tools and strategies as other fundraising or budget processes. However, the Fifth Committee process - like all assessed funding processes - is fundamentally different than other budgetary processes, such as voluntary fundraising or presenting a budget to a national legislature as part of a government.

Fundraising for voluntary resources naturally targets ‘like-minded’ donors who agree with your organization’s mandate and programmatic approach. It is therefore a relatively easy process of finding mutual agreement on what the voluntary funds will be used for, because you’re unlikely to be negotiating with a potential donor that is opposed to what you want to do. But assessed funding is not a voluntary donation. Assessed funding is a mandatory payment by every member state of the UN. Once a budget is agreed, they each have their share they must pay, or risk losing their voting rights. So all member states have a vested interest in making sure that the programme and budget that is agreed fits both their policy and financial preferences. Consequently, you have a lot more diversity of opinions and concerns that need to be addressed than in a typical extra budgetary fundraising process.

An important rule for oral and written communications is therefore that ‘less is more’. Being clear and concise, and most importantly, ensuring consistency in communications is key to success. This includes consistency between your responses to questions and the programme document, as well as consistency across all written and oral responses provided by your department or office. Extra details provided in one part of the process but not others can create confusion and raise doubts about whether the management of your office really has a shared understanding of where the programme is going. By adding extra and inconsistent details, and potentially creating confusion, you are more likely to strengthen the negotiating position of member states who disagree with elements of your programme than you are likely to convince undecided member states.

These risks can be mitigated by senior leaders, who should be re-reading written responses for programmatic consistency across a department, especially when those responses have been drafted by different units and sections. Mid-level managers can, and should, also take the initiative to coordinate and collaborate in drafting responses on similar topics or with other team leaders in their subprogramme. Not only does this help with consistency and credibility of the responses, it can also minimize your workload by identifying duplication among the questions and where the same answer can be used multiple times.

The UN budget is not comparable to a national budget

For those who perceive the Fifth Committee process as similar to that of a government presenting its budget to the legislature, we also highlight some very fundamental differences that impact your engagement strategies. By definition, a government tends to represent a majority in the legislature and can generally garner enough votes to pass a budget, even if there is some level of disagreement. The General Assembly has indicated that the UN regular budget should be agreed with the broadest level of agreement possible (Resolution 41/213), which is generally considered to be by consensus. This means that smaller, less powerful groups of member states, or even individual member states have the potential to undermine the consensus. That gives them a level of influence that is much more significant than a small party in a legislature. And that means, as much as possible, you need to understand and balance the different views of all stakeholders in the Fifth Committee. Focusing your engagement and negotiation strategy just those who pay more in the Western Europe and Other Group (WEOG), or the Permanent members (P5) in the UN Security Council, or the G77 Group which is the largest grouping in terms of numbers is not going to get results, especially if you're programme of work includes changes from previous years. Needs and concerns that cut across multiple member state groupings should be prioritized and how you've balanced the concerns of different member state groupings should be clearly articulated in communications.

Another unique feature of the Fifth Committee process that makes this balancing act important, is that the negotiators essentially have to pay for their final decision. Unlike in a national legislature where budget negotiations are about allocations of a separate pot of tax revenues, assessed funding negotiations are about how much each delegation needs to pay once agreement has been found on the final programme and budget. That means diplomats need to explain to their capitals how much money they owe the UN at the end of the budget process, and that becomes easier if they can also explain clearly what their government got in return. Obviously this won’t necessarily be possible for all of the 193 member states, but it is important to try and demonstrate to as many member states as possible that they are getting benefits from their assessed funding payments.

UN Fifth Committee approval is a contract renewal

An important way of doing this, is by acknowledging that the UN ultimately works for member states. This is where a better analogy for the Fifth Committee process is to think of it as a contract renewal process between the UN and its member states.

The budget can be understood as a routinely re-negotiated contract through which member states… provide for the resourcing of international bureaucracies… in exchange for the future provision of services… for a limited time period.” - R. Patz & K. Goetz, Managing Money and Discord in the UN, pg. 23

Member states set up the UN to address collective action problems that they alone cannot resolve, and they continue every year to establish new resolutions in which they task the UN to take on more work on their behalf. The programme of work that each UN entity presents to the Fifth Committee is essentially a plan for how they are going to operationalize that contract - what policy areas are prioritized, what levels of resources are allocated to different priorities and what will be achieved within which time frame? The programme of work, therefore, is essentially an annual update and renewal of that original contract.

Framing your programme of work in terms of the original contract by referencing the resolutions that established and updated your mandates is therefore phenomenally important. Member states all saw enough benefit in agreeing to those resolutions, and your programme and communications should keep demonstrating how member states are reaping those benefits. Member states already agreed on language in those resolutions, so especially if you are presenting something new in your programme of work, frame it in the context of existing agreements and use member states’ previously agreed language to avoid discord. Internal strategic planning documents, which can be very useful management tools for a department, do not however carry weight with member states - unless the member states formally endorsed or approved those documents. References to documents and texts that have been agreed by member states should always be emphasized and prioritized over those which have only been agreed internally within the Secretariat.

Considering the Fifth Committee process as a contract renewal process also highlights another particular feature of the process:

Budget negotiations are as much negotiations between member states as they are between member states and the bureaucracy.” - R. Patz & K. Goetz, Managing Money and Discord in the UN, pg 24

Imagine if you’re a real estate agent trying to sell a house that 193 siblings just inherited from their parents. Those siblings need to find agreement amongst themselves on what they want to list the house for when you renew your contract with them. The same applies to budget negotiations. Understanding which elements are being negotiated between member states versus where member states genuinely need new or more information from you, helps target your communications more effectively. If an issue is really being negotiated with you, then taking a risk to add more detail in your response might be worthwhile. Whereas, a question with the underlying intention of reinforcing a point of negotiation between member states, should be answered without new information and very consistently with your previous communications. Repetition is good in such cases, whereas creativity can cause a negotiation to take an unexpected turn.

The reality is also that decision-making by consensus is generally characterized by trade-offs between the different member states and groupings trying to find compromise agreements. From a programme perspective, it can sometimes be helpful to provide indications where trade-offs are really not possible because they jeopardize your ability to achieve results. This is often best done informally at an early stage so that member states can build it into their respective negotiation strategies. New information or surprises in the late stages of negotiations are generally not helpful in finding compromise.

Your checklist for engaging constructively with the Fifth Committee

Based on our analysis above, the following six practical tips can help you engage more effectively with the Fifth Committee - whether your a senior manager presenting a programme, or a mid-level manager answer written questions from the Committee.

  • Consistency is key. Understand the vision and key messages put forward by your department, office and subprogramme and ensure all written and oral communications with the Committee are consistent with those.

  • Less is more. Avoid unnecessary extra detail, and if you need to provide extra information ensure it complements and reinforces what you’ve already submitted or said.

  • Member states are the boss. Make sure your programme and responses are framed according to member states’ resolutions and agreements, rather than internal planning documents.

  • Understand the key concerns of all the groupings of member states, and prioritize addressing those issues which cut across multiple groups.

  • Give member states useful tools to facilitate compromise between each other. Provide informal indications of where trade-offs may seriously undermine your programme versus other areas where compromise is feasible.

  • Avoid surprises with new information, especially in later stages of the negotiation process. Early, informal engagement with member states is more helpful than last ditch lobbying efforts.


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The UN General Assembly's Fifth Committee begins its main session on 2 October 2023. The focus of the session is on the 2024 programme of work and regular budget proposal of the UN Secretariat and its Special Political Missions, as well as UNRWA and UNHCR.

  • The UNESCO Executive Board meets from 4 - 18 October 2023 mainly on programmatic issues, but also some key administrative priorities, including the new Human Resources Strategy for 2023-2027 (see our April spotlight for info).


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