Ted Turner Gift Poised To Boost UN

The payout begins in May. Worries about his undue influence on the world body seem allayed.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Remember last year when Ted Turner announced he would give that $1 billion to support United Nations causes? Well, those in charge of spending the cash are settling into their new offices this month and about to get down to business.

As the money starts flowing in May, a range of global concerns - population, human rights, and the environment - can expect a big boost. So can Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The gift also appears to have sparked some rethinking about an organization that is often criticized for its bureaucracy and largess.

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"In a sense, it's broken the psychological logjam about the UN's financial future, relieving the pessimism and gloom over the US arrears," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a New York-based UN watchdog group.

These are heady times for the UN. Mr. Annan himself appears to be riding his recent success in averting - or at least delaying - a military conflict between the United States and Iraq.

He took to the road April 19 on a highly publicized trip around the US aimed at raising awareness of the UN.

Annan will attend sold-out, support-building events in San Francisco, Hollywood, and Houston, mingling with film stars, academics, business leaders, and politicians.

When Mr. Turner announced his gift in September, UN officials were ecstatic. UN operations were suffering from the US failure to pay its $1.5 billion in back dues, and from a decline in voluntary contributions from member states. Turner's gift was a much-needed morale booster, a high-profile gesture of support for the beleaguered organization from a high-profile American.

Other analysts - and some member states - have expressed concern that the gift might actually undermine global cooperation by letting the US and other delinquent countries off the hook - or by beginning the process of "privatizing" UN operations, making them dependent on the support of wealthy individuals, rather than governments.

Timothy Wirth, former senator from Colorado and undersecretary of state, was hired by Turner to manage the gift. He appears to have since addressed many of those concerns. Working in close cooperation with Secretary-General Annan, he has put in place checks and balances geared to ensure that projects funded by the gift are in accordance with UN policy, and that they supplement - not replace - existing operations.

"We're not going to be doing things that governments ought to be doing," says Mr. Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation (UNF), the Washington-based charity Turner formed to channel the donation.

"We don't want to be in the position of substituting for governments or putting money into the sort of large disaster-response programs that they can support. We want to keep ourselves on the prevention side of the ledger," he says. "Underlying problems like population, environmental issues, and human rights haven't gotten the kind of attention they need."

Turner will make his gift in the form of 10 annual installments of $100 million in Time-Warner stock, the vast majority of which goes to the UNF. Personnel at the UNF will work with their counterparts at the UN Secretariat to identify mutually agreeable proposals. In effect, Wirth and Annan's representatives will collaborate to find projects they both want to support.

Most projects will be drafted by UN organizations and agencies, which will forward them to the new UN International Partnership Trust Fund office (UNFIP) at headquarters. UNFIP, which reports directly to Annan, will decide which proposals earn the secretary-general's stamp of approval and in some cases will work with UN agencies on projects.

Nothing gets funded by Turner, in other words, unless Annan wants it to be.

"We will only put forward projects that are fully consistent with UN mandates and policies," says Miles Stoby, UNFIP's executive director. "We're not seeking to play politics between the [UN] agencies; we just want to put forward the best projects. If we are going to build on this opportunity, we must have a good track record. We need projects that work, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and can have measurable results."

Wirth favors projects in three areas: population and women's issues, environment and climate change, and children's health.

Additional resources will be dedicated to improving the performance of UN agencies in accordance with Annan's reform efforts.

That translates to a windfall for UN agencies that work closely with these issues, like the population fund (UNFPA), the children's fund (UNICEF), the development program (UNDP), and the environment program (UNEP). UN sources say dozens of proposals have been drafted by these agencies for consideration. These and other UN bodies also have been drafting joint proposals to increase their collaboration.

"Turner has always been interested in population issues, and Tim Wirth was a big mover and shaker at the Cairo population conference - so in a sense, we're definitely on the inside track," says UNFPA spokesman Alex Marshall.

"Population is one area where we've shown that development programs can work, and we'll be continuing to propose innovative programs that empower women to make their own decisions."

UNICEF has submitted more than a dozen proposals for possible funding by Turner ranging from the eradication of parasitic worms in Western and Central Africa to land-mine awareness programs for children in former war zones.

"We're absolutely delighted by Ted Turner's gift, and the support it represents for global responsibility," says Alex Palacios, the UNICEF official coordinating funding applications to the UNF. "It's been a frightening past few years for those of us involved in international development, with individuals and governments giving less. Turner's gift is coming at just the right time for us."

Indeed, the gift comes at a time when philanthropic donations to international-development causes have been on the wane. The United Nations system also has suffered from the US Congress's refusal to make long-overdue payments to the organization, the latter largely due to the strong opposition of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who chairs the Committee on Foreign Relations. UN officials hope that Turner succeeds in attracting other ultrawealthy individuals to follow his lead.

"Turner's gift is of enormous symbolic importance because it shows that not all Americans agree with Helms," says Mr. Paul of the Global Policy Forum.

Turner and Wirth are hoping to find other generous Americans to contribute to the UNF. They have to. The UNF is legally constituted not as a foundation, but as a public charity - an arrangement that requires a diversified board of directors and caps donations from any single donor at 90 percent of total funds. That means the UNF must round up another $10 million each year from other donors, a task UNF spokesman David Harwood says the foundation is beginning to undertake.

The arrangement also reduces Turner's formal control over his gift, deflecting charges that he would exert personal influence over the UN and increasing the likelihood that other philanthropists would become involved in the UNF.

But with a $1 billion commitment, Turner undoubtedly will exert some control behind the scenes.

That doesn't concern William Pace, executive director of the New York-based World Federalist Movement, which advocates a stronger, more democratic UN.

"This is a great gesture of world citizenship," he says. "Turner didn't give the money to promote himself or the interests of the US, but to promote greater international partnership to solve problems at the global level.

"I think it's unfortunate that his gift is so narrowly focused, however," Mr. Pace adds. "Our hope is that the UN Foundation will expand the programs it is willing to consider to the conflict-settlement, peacekeeping, and international-justice issues that are at the core of the UN mandate."

The UNF's focus isn't expected to expand anytime soon. But part of Turner's gift will be used for other purposes. Wirth is considering setting up a discretionary fund that Annan could draw upon to allow his office to respond to emergencies - sending a plane load of medical supplies to a disaster area, for instance - without losing valuable time waiting for paperwork to pass through the UN bureaucracy. The money would be paid back after the paperwork was completed.

Turner has also established a parallel charity, the Better World Fund (also headed by Wirth), which will do public-relations work aimed at cultivating support for the UN.

Much of that effort will be conducted in partnership with citizens' groups around the US that support UN causes.

"In 10 years, I hope we'll see a dozen foundations like this one in other countries around the world, that we'd have found 20 more Ted Turners, and developed a stronger base of support for the UN in this country," Wirth says.

"We hope to see world population stabilize at 8.5 billion instead of 10 or 11 billion, the negotiation of a major climate-change treaty, real improvements in children's health, and restrictions in land-mine development and usage," he says.

"Then, I'd feel we'd made a real difference."

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