UN peacekeeping: when you don't care enough to send the very best. Photographer: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images
UN peacekeeping: when you don't care enough to send the very best. Photographer: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

An ex-United Nations spokeswoman formerly with its Darfur peacekeeping mission has stirred up some dust with charges about the mission's coverup of killings and abuse. You can find Aicha Elbasri's case, along with Colum Lynch's excellent accompanying article series, at Foreign Policy. They're a stomach-churning indictment of bureaucratic cowardice and cynicism on the part of the UN's leadership and of leading members of the "international community" such as the U.S. They're also the latest reminder that UN peacekeeping missions are often about sending whatever is cheapest, not whatever is best.

Elbasri and Lynch identify numerous instances in which the African Union-UN Mission in Darfur force failed to prevent killings and kidnappings, suppressed politically damaging information about Sudan's role in attacks, and ignored insubordination and incompetence within its own ranks.

To be sure, the Darfur mission has faced big political obstacles. Its hybrid structure, with its cumbersome chain of command, was forced upon it by Sudan, which blocked a solely UN mission and, later, the provision of advanced weaponry by Norway and Thailand. Sudan's patron China stood ready to veto more forceful action.

So what was sent in 2008 to protect Darfur's almost 2 million ravaged and displaced inhabitants were roughly 20,000 undergunned, and in many cases undertrained, mostly African personnel. Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan -- perennial peacekeeper providers -- each sent contingents of fewer than 1,000 personnel. Of the 48 countries that had troops or police on the mission in February 2014, only three (Germany, Turkey and South Korea) were developed nations, with a total complement of fewer than 100 people. The U.S. sent no one -- though it bankrolled more than a quarter of the force's $1.3 billion annual cost. Requests by the UN for member nations to provide attack and transport helicopters went unmet. The force not only has been a military and political fiasco, but also has suffered more than 190 casualties.

The same kinds of weaknesses have bedeviled many a UN mission. Consider the sorry history of the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As I explained in the Atlantic in July 2009:

In November 1999, the United Nations Security Council authorized sending peacekeepers to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, despite the growth of the UN force to more than 18,000 personnel, at a cost of more than $1 billion a year, violence and turmoil have killed millions more Congolese. Of course, some things haven’t helped, like the Pakistani peacekeepers who rearmed, in return for gold, the militia they were supposed to be disarming; or the Indian troops who reportedly traded arms for ivory from the rebels and bought dope from them in the bargain; or the contingent of UN troops who failed to stop a massacre of 150 people taking place less than a mile away. Even before that tragedy last December, Congolese had rioted outside one UN compound over the mission’s ineffectiveness, and the Spanish general newly appointed to command the UN force had resigned in a huff over weak political support and feeble military resources.

A UN force is better than no force. But why can't UN forces be better? Maybe because rich countries with strong militaries can't be bothered to chip in. Of the 98,350 personnel now on more than a dozen peacekeeping missions, fewer than 7 percent come from members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Instead, the top 10 contributors (from Pakistan at No. 1 to Ghana at No. 10) are mostly doing it for the money. The UN's monthly per-head payments of more than $1,100 (once you total up the various allowances and supplemental payments) adds up to many times their per capita gross domestic product. These reimbursements from the UN are also equivalent to a significant chunk of some contributor nations' defense spending: On paper, at least, the annual reimbursements for the 6,600 Ethiopian personnel serving in various UN missions are roughly equal to a quarter of its 2011 defense spending.

There's no doubt that having UN peacekeepers do your dirty work is a good financial deal for rich countries: One 2006 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimated that the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti cost half of what a comparable U.S.-run mission might cost. Then again, maybe U.S. peacekeepers wouldn't have left Haiti infected with a cholera epidemic, as the UN mission subsequently did. And bargain-basement peacekeeping is only a good deal if it works -- in Africa, at least, there's a growing body of evidence that it doesn't. Moreover, does the world really want to outsource its peacekeeping to militaries from regimes that, in many cases, are not exactly paragons of human rights?

Yesterday, the UN Security Council approved a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission for the Central African Republic, the site of deadly strife that embroils religion and ethnicity. If past precedent serves, what arrives by the mission's start date in September will be too little, too late. So here's an idea: If you're going to be mercenary about peacekeeping, just hire mercenaries -- excuse me, private military and security companies, to use the corporate term of art. During the 1990s, a small, highly trained force from Executive Outcomes defeated insurgencies in Sierra Leone and Angola. Since then, the universe of such companies has expanded mightily. In fact, many individual UN agencies have employed them for everything from providing intelligence and demining to convoy security. Odds are that you would need fewer of them to get the job done. And as to the UN's exquisite reservations about hiring "mercenaries" -- i.e., companies that are upfront about their profit motive, as opposed to countries that aren't -- well, I'm sure the long-suffering residents of Darfur and Congo would settle for anybody who could actually get the job done.

To contact the writer of this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.