Winning one of the ten elected seats on the UN Security Council is traditionally seen as an important boost to a country’s diplomatic prestige, giving smaller nations a unique chance to influence the most pressing issues on the international agenda.

This year’s competition is already promising to be controversial, as Venezuela attempts to overcome US opposition to its bid, and as Indonesia, Korea and Nepal battle it out for the Asian seat. Italy, Belgium and South Africa appear assured of a place, according to a study by Security Council Report, a think tank.

But a paper by two Harvard economists suggests another important benefit to Security Council membership: American money.

Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker, in “How Much is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations”, find that developing countries’ aid from the US increases by 59 per cent when they get a seat. They even receive an 8 per cent boost in aid from UN agencies, especially Unicef.

The reason, they suggest, is because their votes are worth something. “Membership on the council remains a coveted prize among UN member states,” the economists write. “The desire to participate more meaningfully in world affairs might motivate countries to fight for a spot on the Security Council. It is also possible, however, that rotating members are able to extract rents during their time.”

The study postulates at least three reasons for a connection between foreign aid and membership: first, that they are trading their votes for cash, second, membership enables a country to highlight better its needs for assistance, and finally, countries’ election to the council might reflect their increased integration in the world economy.

But the analysis lends “strong support to the bribery hypothesis over the two alternative hypotheses,” they say. First, aid to Security Council members is much larger in years when the UN body receives especially large amounts of media coverage or a big international event occurs.

Second, aid payments sharply increase in the year that a country is elected to the Security Council, remain high throughout the two-year term, “but return to their earlier level almost immediately upon completion of the term”.

On average, they say, the typical developing country serving on the council can anticipate an additional $16m from the US and $1m from the UN.

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