Turner's gift to U.N. has a downside Move sets the stage for privatization, undue influence of world body

September 28, 1997|By PHYLLIS BENNIS

Ted Turner is incredibly rich - for most of us, unfathomably so. Recently, he showed that he's also incredibly generous, and to many in Washington, that must have been unfathomable, too.

Turner's plan to donate about a billion dollars to various United Nations programs over the next decade will accomplish a great deal. It will enable the often beleaguered and constantly underfunded world organization to carry out much more of its challenging mandates in key humanitarian areas such as children, health, refugees, and land-mine removal. It was a magnificent gesture that speaks to the instinctive internationalism of its donor.

But there's a downside. It has less to do with the intentions of Cable News Network's founder than with the broader danger facing the weakened and besieged United Nations. That downside, too big to allow gratitude for the gesture to obscure it, is that Ted Turner's gift, however noble its origins, sets the stage for widespread privatization of the United Nations, reducing it from an instrument of potentially powerful global multilateralism, to a vehicle for channeling individual or corporate charity.

Turner stated clearly that he had "no intention" of trying to interfere with U.N. decision-making or to dictate the United Nations' agenda. But establishing an independent foundation to "work with" U.N. officials in determining how the money should be spent, threatens precisely the outcome he says he wants to avoid, a group of outside individuals, accountable only to themselves, playing a major role in determining U.N. programs and priorities. If U.S. tax law requires establishing a foundation rather than donating the money directly to U.N. agencies and funds such as UNICEF, the children's fund, why not name Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other U.N. officials as directors of the foundation, rather than empowering outsiders to play such an influential role?

Assessing the impact of Turner's gift is complicated. Certainly the U.N. programs he mentioned are all vitally important and in desperate need of cash. It's not surprising that U.N. officials were thrilled with his announcement. But it also lets the United States off the hook, at least a little bit. If funding for those humanitarian programs, among the United Nations' most popular, were no longer in danger, the overall U.N. financial crisis would appear less urgent. The role of the United States, the United Nations' biggest debtor nation, in fomenting that crisis by refusing to pay $1.5 billion in overdue general and peacekeeping assessments, would appear less criminal.

Turner's billion-dollar gift, contrary to his intentions, may undermine the sense of international urgency resulting from Washington's failure to pay its dues. By encouraging individual donations and corporate charity in this era of worldwide privatization, it undermines the responsibility of U.N. member states to remain accountable to the organization.

If governments' obligation for funding U.N. agencies devolves to private donors able to pick and choose their favorite programs, there is great danger that governments will soon be held responsible only for funding the U.N. secretariat itself. And with mean-spirited isolationism dominating Washington decision-making on the United Nations, what hope is there for U.S. funding of the United Nations' overall structure that undergirds those popular programs?

When the organization as a whole continues (however inaccurately) to be attacked as a "bloated bureaucracy," who in Congress will appropriate funds to sustain the prosaic U.N. headquarters and its hard-working staff?

President Clinton, in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, called on the United Nations to "focus even more on shifting resources from hand-outs to hand-ups." It's not so difficult to see his application of that kind of Washington-style welfare reform to the United Nations itself: The United States won't pay hundreds of millions of dollars it owes the organization, it will applaud private-sector donations instead.

The United Nations "no longer need go it alone," according to Clinton. Turner's donation, he said, "highlights the potential for partnership between the U.N. and the private sector. And I hope more will follow his lead." Coming from the head of state of the United Nations' largest deadbeat member, that is a scary notion.

A few more billion-dollar gifts, and Clinton as well as his congressional adversaries would surely be off the hook.

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