A $1 Billion Gift Horse Gets a Look
One Good Turn?
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — Last week's announcement by Ted Turner, chairman of Cable News Network, that he would contribute $1 billion to the United Nations stunningly illustrates the influence one person can wield.
On the face of it, the gift also represents a boost for philanthropy that would seem immune to criticism. But coming amid a raging debate over UN reform, even a gift-giver is suspect.
In recent days, the implications of Mr. Turner's head-spinning gesture have begun to come into focus, sparking debate over his motives; possible roadblocks to the gift's delivery; its impact on UN operations - even the UN's rocky relations with Washington over reform.
"The real benefit of what he's doing is highlighting how individuals can make a difference," says Noel Lateef, president of the Foreign Policy Association in New York.
The contribution, about equal to the UN's annual budget, will be paid in $100 million installments over 10 years and go to aiding refugees and children, clearing land mines, protecting the environment, and boosting health programs - once the details are worked out.
Turner has called on fellow billionaires to follow suit, potentially touching off a serious charity competition among the world's well-to-do do-gooders.
"Other millionaires and billionaires are serious competitors, and Ted Turner is provoking them in a responsible, creative way," says Avery Russell, program officer for the Carnegie Corp. in New York. "He's saying, 'Guys, you don't need that money, and you don't need that money to make more money.' "
But Mexico's foreign minister said Wednesday that the rich should not be allowed to dominate the UN, even raising the notion that an individual like Turner could somehow qualify for a seat on the 15-member Security Council, with veto rights.
"Some people are concerned that private donors could control the UN," says Ruth Wedgewood of the Council on Foreign Relations. "But you must realize he's not a member state, and he doesn't have a voice."
American popular opinion is mixed. In a survey by America Online that elicited nearly 13,000 responses, 41 percent said Turner's gift was goodwill, 39 percent said it was for publicity, and 19 percent felt he did it for a tax write off.
Questions have also arisen over the gift's effect on relations between the US and UN, strained over America's failure to pay its considerable dues. Turner's gift coincided with this week's opening of the 52nd General Assembly, a time for world leaders to outline what they see as the proper goals of the UN and criticize those member states that haven't paid their dues.
The US wants its contribution to the UN budget reduced during the next three years from 25 percent to 20 percent, and has put several conditions on a partial payment of its arrears.
Ms. Wedgewood says the gift might gain some goodwill for the US in the General Assembly, but it's unlikely to pressure the US to pay. In fact, many speeches this week by foreign ministers have lauded Turner while blasting the US.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he hopes Turner's gift will inspire the US to pay up. Turner has been critical of the US attitude of not paying UN dues, and it has been said that he considered paying the $1.5 billion that the US owes.
Of course, Turner isn't the first businessman turned philanthropist. Critics have charged that, until now, he has been long on talk and short on consistent action.
Andrew Carnegie, the 19th-century industrialist who made his fortune in steel, gave away the equivalent of $5 billion in 1997 value, much of it to libraries. The UN Headquarters occupies land given by John D. Rockefeller, who also gave about $5 billion in 1997 dollars. George Soros, president of the Soros Fund Management, has so far given away $1 billion. Mr. Soros said Wednesday that while he admires Turner's move, he had no intention of emulating it, telling reporters he was "less flamboyant" than Turner.
"There are a phenomenal amount of people who have come into wealth in this country," says Peter Goldmark, president of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. "They find the wealth outstrips their own need and begin to question how it was made and how it could be used for something worthwhile."
But Turner may have changed the game by "putting a stake in the ground and saying to all the other billionaires in the world, 'Here's mine, where's yours?' " Mr. Goldmark says.
Questions remain over how the donation will actually be paid. Turner's worth has been estimated at $3.2 billion. But some 95 percent of his wealth is said to be tied up in shares he needs to keep in order to maintain influence at media giant Time Warner. Avoiding a US gift tax will also require some fancy footwork.
But these are being viewed by some as details to be ironed out. For now, Mr. Annan is choosing to celebrate Turner's contribution as a harbinger of future donations.
"Civil-society organizations and the private sector are approaching us with ever-greater frequency to work with us," said Annan, speaking before the General Assembly. "The extraordinarily generous and historically unprecedented $1 billion gift from Mr. Ted Turner for the United Nations' work ... is the most visible expression of this new and promising relationship."
It's still too early to tell exactly how Turner's gift will be spent, but it's clear it already has made quite a splash among the various UN organizations that depend on voluntary contributions. For example, one-third of UNICEF's $9.4 million budget in 1996 came from private donations.
"It's really a stunning thing to have happened," says Anna Wright, spokesperson for UNICEF. "The day after, people were walking around with smiles on their faces. It's such a major endorsement to have a very prominent person ... who is an American do this."
Turner's gift also will boost the efforts of the United Nations Development Program, says James Gustave Speth, its administrator.
"Ted turned the tide of decreasing aid for development," Mr. Speth says. "We hope others, corporations and individuals, will follow his excellent example."
UNDP has just started the Global Sustainable Development Fund to accept contributions from private individuals, corporations, and foundations to UNDP's antipoverty work .
In addition, the funds could make a big difference in programs to help the poorest of the poor or to increase the reach of nongovernmental organizations working in concert with the UN, Mr. Lateef of the Foreign Policy Association says.
This much is certain: Turner has quickly gained respect in the world of philanthropy as well as the international community.
"The problems he picked out are the tough ones that will face the next generations and that is the mark of a great philanthropist," says Goldmark of the Rockefeller Foundation.