Photo: Flags flying in front of the World Health Organization in Geneva. (US Permanent Mission in Geneva/Flickr) - Photo: 2024

Geneva Is a Western, And Not Global, Hub for Multilateralism

By Kasmira Jefford

GENEVA | 10 July 2024 (IDN | Geneva Solutions) — A study revealing international Geneva’s largely western donor base suggests the city is not as global as it claims.

Donor contributions to international organisations in Geneva have almost quintupled over the last two decades, according to a study released by the Geneva Graduate Institute. Thirteen of the largest Geneva-based organisations, as well as three major health players, saw donations collectively leap from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $23.6bn in 2020.

In total, the 16 organisations amassed $253.7bn over the twenty-year period, based on data analysed from over 30,000 contributions by 1,146 different donors.

The surge in funding spells good news for the health and humanitarian sectors, which received the lion’s share of contributions—48 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively.

Health organisations include Gavi, the Global Fund, the World Health Organization and the non-profit Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are among the humanitarian actors who have benefited.

Other organisations included in the study, grouped into three topics— environment and sustainable development, labour and economic affairs, and peace and security— accounted for the remaining 13 per cent of contributions.

Geneva’s cantonal authorities, which commissioned the study, may also be quietly celebrating as it points to a city still pulling its weight at a time when multilateralism is being put to the test.

Western benefactors

But a closer look at the list of major contributors raises the question of whether Geneva can truly call itself international— at least from a funding perspective.

An overwhelming majority (90.1 per cent) are public donors, with the largest being western governments, led by the United States, which accounts for just over a quarter of all contributions.

In second place— though lagging behind the US by a significant distance— (is the United Kingdom (8.1 per cent), followed by the European Union (6.8 per cent). Strikingly, the EU and G7 combined accounted for most contributions to international organisations, averaging 91.96 per cent.

The Gates Foundation was the only private donor among the top 15 contributors, coming in eighth place and giving nearly $16bn to international organisations over the two decades, namely the WHO, Gavi and the Global Fund.

A universe of multilateralisms

Achim Wennmann, director for strategic partnerships and a professor at the Graduate Institute, said this high concentration of funding in the hands of a small group of public donors underlined “the historical place of international Geneva as part of an American century”.

Born out of the First and Second World Wars, Geneva’s global governance architecture was in large part influenced by the projections of the US.

“Some observers might interpret this characteristic as reflective of a certain degree of strategic dissonance between Geneva’s place in a past, US-dominated international order, and its branding as a global hub,” he said in a commentary accompanying the study.

Speaking at the launch last Wednesday (July 3) at the Maison de la Paix, Wennmann said that the world was seeing “a competition of systems”, with the United Nations and its satellite of multilateral organisations no longer the only system shaping global governance.

“We have seen, particularly over the last 10 to 15 years…a regionalisation of multilateral activity which is not that much focused on Geneva or New York,” he said.

New alliances and “new multilateralisms” are being forged, he added, and while not all member states contribute to Geneva-based organisations, it does not mean that they are not contributing to other major international institutions elsewhere.

But what of international Geneva’s ecosystem? “In a sense, it is worrying that we don’t see more gradual diversification, as we see emerging economies having emerged…and now accounting for a greater share of the world’s GDP,” said Gilles Charbonnier, ICRC vice president and professor of development economics at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

He said it also raised the question of how much of a consensus exists around the universal values and objectives these organisations promote. “In conversations between the so-called west and the so-called rest, there is sometimes the question of whether it’s a universalism imposed top-down or bottom-up, or whether it’s really a horizontal universalism.”

For Wennmann, encouraging more countries to contribute to organisations in Geneva will require western players to decide how much power and influence they are willing to sacrifice in return.

“Otherwise, if top donors are unwilling to give away a degree of control over some parts of the multilateral system, the system might become somewhat sidelined or less important in the management of global challenges.”

Also speaking at the event, Gian Luca Burci, senior visiting professor at the Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre, cautioned money is not the only factor that determines influence over international organisations. He cited Brazil as an example, which pays two per cent in assessed contributions to the WHO but exerts “incredible influence”.

“It’s clarity of political agenda, the quality of diplomatic services and the ability to build alliances that can lead countries with a relatively small financial footprint to acquire some influence,” he argued.

Future-proofing Geneva

But diversification of funding is also important if international Geneva is going to weather geopolitical storms, as well as changing national agendas that are buffetted its way – like the US elections and the risk of a potential Trump administration, which has previously withdrawn funding from organisations like the WHO.

Wennmann said: “These figures reveal a certain vulnerability of the financing of Geneva-based international organisations when considering a political outlook in which changing governments within the top donors might change the way they relate to international cooperation and to supporting issues such as health diplomacy or humanitarian assistance.”

For the host Canton, the city of Geneva and the Swiss governments, which paid around CHF 1bn in 2019 in infrastructure costs to maintain international Geneva, on top of individual contributions made to its organisations, its interest in understanding the donor base is clear even “if its role is not to fund multilateralism”, as one of its key spokespeople points out.

Olivier Coutau, delegate to international Geneva at the Canton of Geneva, said a strategy put in place in 2022 was already addressing many of the findings, including making international Geneva “as inclusive and universal as possible” through measures like supporting new NGOs to permanent missions from least developed countries.

“We believe that the more universal international Geneva is, the more impactful it will be and the more likely it will be to receive financial support,” he told Geneva Solutions by email.

He acknowledged the large presence of western actors but pointed to the larger international Geneva ecosystem beyond the 16 organisations analysed in the report.

“We can also take into consideration that today there are more than 650 global players and 36,000 people working within international Geneva, including almost all of the world’s states represented by a permanent mission. Not bad in terms of universality,” he said in an email to Geneva Solutions.

“The more non-western stakeholders will be convinced by international Geneva, the more diversified its funding will become.” [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Flags flying in front of the World Health Organization in Geneva. (US Permanent Mission in Geneva/Flickr)

Geneva Solutions content is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.

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