If Ted Turner has another billion dollars to give . . .

October 01, 1997|By Mona Charen

TED TURNER has given the largest gift anyone has ever heard of -- $1 billion -- to the United Nations.

There is no doubt that some portion of that money will do good.

But considering the notorious inefficiency of the U.N. bureaucracy, the percentage of Mr. Turner's money that will go directly to helping needy people is a separate question.

Maybe next time, Ted Turner will consider the International Rescue Committee, which has just been named as the 1997 recipient of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

For more than 60 years, IRC has been helping the most helpless people in the world -- and, unlike many international organizations, promoting freedom and democracy in the process.

The IRC was founded in 1933 as a response to Hitler's persecution of Jews and intellectuals. At the urging of Albert Einstein, an ad hoc group came together to do what it could on behalf of German professors, writers, artists and others.

Faculty jobs

The IRC's first act was to find faculty positions for these refugees at American universities in order to secure visas for them.

Thus did painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, sculptor Jacob Lipshutz, writer Franz Werfel, literature professor Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas), as well as 2,000 others, escape Vichy France.

When the war ended, the IRC expanded, providing relief and succor to displaced persons and refugees throughout Europe.

Today, whether it is Hutus fleeing Tutsis or Bosnian Muslims fleeing Serbs, the IRC is there within hours.

When a refugee crisis hits, such as the flight of Iraqi Kurds into Turkey in 1991 or the Afghans spilling into Pakistan following the Soviet invasion in 1980, a human disaster is in the making.

People flee their homes usually with only what they can carry on their backs.

Eighty percent are women and children. Hundreds of thousands of tired, frightened, despairing people gather in areas where there is no food, sanitary facilities, water, medical care or shelter.

Plagues like cholera, typhoid and dysentery can descend within a few days. Children succumb easily to dehydration, exposure and malnutrition.

Most of us watch these horrors on television and despair. The IRC leaps into action and can have a team on the site within 72 hours to provide basic lifesaving needs.

When the immediate emergency has passed, the IRC begins to prepare refugees for their future lives, offering training and preparation, even including small-business development, to help them become self-sufficient.

When the Bosnia crisis was at its worst and many were predicting widespread starvation in Sarajevo and elsewhere, IRC distributed hundreds of tons of seeds to farmers in places where the fighting was minimal.

The crops that resulted from that sowing -- potatoes, cabbages, beets, carrots, onions and more -- provided more food for the Bosnians than the international airlift.

The IRC has won praise and admiration for its lean operation. I can recall seeing its New York office in the early 1980s -- it was clear that few dollars were being spent on digs for the administration.

U.S. News and World Report chose IRC as one of only five "standout good guys" in its 1995 "Guide to Giving," noting that it spends 92 percent of its revenue directly on program services.

The IRC has also been on the vanguard wherever human freedom has been challenged or compromised.

In 1956, IRC provided aid and comfort to the refugees who fled communist Hungary (one of whom, Andrew Grove, went on to found Intel).

Vietnam refugees

They were in place early to provide relief and help for the Catholic refugees from North Vietnam, a position that won them few cheers from the left.

And they kept faith in the Hmong refugees from the mountains of Vietnam, who were targeted for special persecution by the Communist government after the war because of their wartime cooperation with America.

Today, IRC is present in 23 countries and brings together Americans of varying political views who nonetheless agree on helping refugees.

Henry Kissinger sits on the board, along with Mike Blumenthal and Felix Rohatyn, all refugees from Hitler's Europe who now join others in helping Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and anyone who finds himself without a home.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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