Irony of Private Charity: UN May Lose Money

No one likes to look a gift horse in the mouth. And when the gift is a billion- dollar grant to vitally important and but cash-short programs run by the beleaguered United Nations to care for children, assist refugees, and deactivate land mines, who can complain?

Unfortunately, somebody better. The possible downside has little to do with the munificent internationalism of Ted Turner's extradordinary gesture, and everything to do with the US-imposed weakness of today's UN. The problem is, the very enormity of the donation sets the stage for widespread privatization of the UN, reducing it from a potentially powerful instrument of global multilateralism to a vehicle for channeling private charity.

Mr. Turner has "no intention" of interfering with UN decisionmaking or dictating the UN's agenda. But empowering his independent foundation to "work with" UN officials in determining how to spend the money threatens precisely the outcome he wants to avoid: a group of powerful individuals accountable only to themselves, playing a major role in determining UN programs and priorities.

It's not surprising UN officials were thrilled with Turner's gift. But it also may let the US, largely responsible for the UN's financial crisis, off the hook. If funding for Turner's chosen humanitarian programs, already among the UN's most popular, were suddenly no longer in danger, the UN's overall cash shortfall would appear less urgent. The refusal of the US, the UN's biggest deadbeat nation, to pay its $1.5 billion in overdue assessments would appear less criminal.

A 1996 report in the magazine of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) expressed alarm that many governments are already channeling far more humanitarian assistance funds to nongovernmental organizations in their own countries rather than to multilateral agencies, thus undermining systems of international cooperation in large-scale emergencies. In 1993, already delinquent a billion dollars-plus in UN dues, Washington distributed 17 percent of its humanitarian assistance money to US-based NGOs. That amount shot up to 30 percent in 1995 and is rising.

If government's duty to fund the most popular UN agencies, such as the Children's Fund of the High Commissioner for Refugees, devolves to private donors able to pick and choose their own favorite programs, there is great danger that national authorities will soon be held responsible only for funding the UN secretariat itself. And with Jesse Helms's style of mean-spirted isolationism dominating Washington decision-making on the United Nations, what hope is there for US funding of the UN's overall structure that undergirds those popular programs? Secretary General Kofi Annan impresssed a lot of people on Capitol Hill. But when the organization as a whole continues to be attacked as a "bloated bureaucracy," who in congress will vote to appropriate funds for the prosaic UN headquarters and its hard-working staff, regardless of their primacy in scaffolding the more cuddly and photogenic childhood-inoculation or refugee-protection programs?

A few more billion-dollar private gifts, and President Clinton as well as his congressional adversaries would surely be off the UN hook. And that would spell very bad news for the already imperiled multilateral democracy of the United Nations.

* Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute For Policy Studies, and author of "Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN" (Interlink Publishing Group, 1996).

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