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Why Developing Nations Send So Many Troops to UN Peace Ops


A United Nations police officer from Benin working for the mission in Mali, one of the most dangerous operations in the UN portfolio, Nov. 7, 2018. The officers conduct daily joint patrols in Gao, a hotbed of jihadist activity, to ensure general security in the city. MARCO DORMINO/MINUSMA

Africa, Asia and Latin America provide more than 90 percent of military and police personnel to United Nations peace operations and contribute about 15 percent of the budget. China, hardly a legitimate representative of the Global South as the world’s second-largest economy and a permanent member of the Security Council, inflates the budget number because its financial contribution is two-thirds of the latter’s total — second to the United States.

The West foots the bill, but since the late 1990s, when even traditional peacekeeping became more dangerous, industrialized countries have been unwilling to send their own personnel where risks are high and national interests low. Therefore, the West makes use of what could be described as “hired help” from the Global South.

This reality does not necessarily imply a more supportive multilateral approach by developing countries, or that they are hesitant to exploit their overwhelming presence of boots on the ground to pursue their own interests. There are three main explanations why countries from the Global South have contributed to UN peace operations: regional cooperation; recognition and prestige; and financial benefits.

Regional interests help to explain why African countries have provided, since 2013, the majority of troops on the continent with the most armed conflict and most peacekeepers. Ethiopia is the single-largest troop- and police-contributing country, providing 7,597 UN blue helmets. Virtually all of the Ethiopian troops work in UN missions in two countries on its borders, South Sudan and Sudan. In addition, Ethiopia provides more than 4,000 troops to the African Union mission to Somalia.

Direct security and economic interests are trying to help contain the spillover from violence throughout the Horn of Africa. The regionalization of peace operations presents obvious disadvantages but advantages as well due to proximity: often, troop contributors share a common background and can deploy faster than countries farther afield. At the same time, they may prioritize their own agendas over that of the country suffering from armed conflict.

While Western governments have criticized the inadequate training and equipment of many current troop- and police-contributing countries, they are unwilling to deploy their own troops to dangerous assignments under a UN flag.

Regional interests were also key to the participation of South American countries in the UN stabilization mission in Haiti. As a regional powerhouse, Brazil sought to increase its international visibility through peacekeeping; most important, to fortify its case for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Along with such other regional powers as India and South Africa, emerging countries have long called for a more representative Council. As such, they seek more inclusive UN decision-making, which not incidentally would advance their own foreign policies.

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China is currently the only permanent-five Council member that is a significant troop contributor. Originally, it disdained peacekeeping and sent troops for the first time in 1992 to the UN Transitional Mission in Cambodia. China started to contribute substantially in this century, now ranking as the 10th-largest troop and police contributor.

As China’s overseas business has grown, the definition of its traditional opposition to interference in the domestic affairs of other countries has become more elastic, especially in Africa, as suggested by its involvement — both with peacekeepers and diplomats — in the UN mission in South Sudan.

In South Asia, India and Pakistan have also long sought to advance their respective public images, perhaps as a reflection of their own rivalry and as beneficiaries of the second-oldest UN peacekeeping operation in Kashmir since 1949, the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan. India is the fourth-largest troop- and police-contributing country and has traditionally contributed; Pakistan, the sixth-largest contributor, has given significantly only since the 1990s.

Bangladesh is the second-largest contributor and has consistently participated in UN operations in the last three decades. Countries with weak economies may provide UN troops for the benefit of comparatively attractive compensation from the UN for soldiers as well as reimbursements to the country.

Twenty-first-century panels help to better situate the politics of troop contributors: the 2000 Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (also called the Brahimi panel) and the 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (HIPPO). Their reports reflected the evolution in the politics of knowledge and norms surrounding UN peace operations — for more traditional peacekeeping and more robust military engagements.

While some recommendations in the Brahimi report reflected demands from the Global South’s troop- and police-contributing countries (for example, more access to Secretariat briefings and Security Council debates), others met resistance, including the suggested creation of an Electronic Information and Strategic Analysis unit in the Secretariat.

By contrast, most of the HIPPO members not only came from the Global South but also the panel held extensive consultations with member states and civil society worldwide. The HIPPO report reflected concerns that had been largely swept under the blue carpet in the previous decade and that did not reflect well on some of the Global South’s troop and police contributors.

For instance, on sexual exploitation and abuse, the report recommended a series of measures to ensure accountability. However, rather than focusing on ways to address trauma and accountability, the major Western funders, especially Washington, used allegations of sex abuse and exploitation against troop and police contributors from the Global South, among other things, to delegitimize and dismiss their demands for change. At the same time, there has been some movement and convergence in views — such as stronger cooperation with and more predictable financing for African Union peace operations.

Among Global South countries, nonetheless, other issues have raised diplomatic hackles and resulted in disagreement, most important about the militarization of UN operations, supported mostly by Western and African countries. For instance, the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians were championed by Rwanda and supported by some of the largest troop and police contributors and many Western countries. Yet China, Russia, India and Pakistan have never endorsed them.

Unsurprisingly, the primacy of politics is evident in UN peace operations; the motivations to contribute troops or support new initiatives vary among countries. In particular, there are more nuances than the cookie-cutter label of “Global South” suggests. That said, its members have played an active role in shaping the nature of operations and debate. If peacekeepers continue to work in dangerous operations, the challenges will undoubtedly become more contested along with the politics surrounding their deployments.

A longer version of this essay originally appeared in E-International Relations.


Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Giovanna Kuele is a Ph.D. candidate there and a nonresident research fellow at the Igarapé Institute.

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