U.N. Praises Infusion of Cash, Confidence
The usual diplomatic reserve was tossed aside here Friday as the United Nations celebrated media titan Ted Turner’s pledge to donate $1 billion to the organization over the next 10 years.
In addition to hailing the injection of all that money into the financially squeezed organization, diplomats and U.N. officials Friday cherished what they saw as an endorsement by one of America’s most visionary businessmen of a world body battered by accusations that it is inefficient, bloated and increasingly irrelevant.
“This is very positive, not so much for the money that will come to the U.N. as for the confidence it expresses in the U.N. system,” said Kamlesh Sharma, ambassador from India, in a typical comment. “Who would give a billion bucks to a failing system? . . . He obviously believes in what the U.N. is doing.”
At a dinner given in New York on Thursday by the United Nations Assn. of the United States of America, a U.N. support group, Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner Inc., pledged to donate $100 million a year for a decade to fund U.N. humanitarian activities around the globe.
The donation, about a third of Turner’s net worth, will come in the form of Time Warner stock and will be channeled through a foundation, Turner said. The total could drop below $1 billion if Time Warner stock declines in value over the 10 years.
Turner added that he will seek additional donations from other wealthy Americans.
The speech prompted a loud ovation at the dinner, and the news monopolized conversations Friday morning in U.N. offices and the headquarters of foreign delegations.
“It’s an absolutely outstanding, wonderful, much-needed jolt of energy,” said Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler at a Friday morning meeting attended by several delegates. “I didn’t know things like that happened anymore. We’re a bunch of old cynics.”
Fred Eckhard, the U.N.'s chief press spokesman, declared it “a billion-dollar day at the United Nations.”
Details of how the foundation will work have not yet been decided.
Turner’s representatives met Friday with Joseph Connor, U.N. undersecretary-general for administration, to begin discussions.
Turner has specified that the money be directed toward disease prevention, children’s programs, land mine removal and other humanitarian programs and not be used for administrative costs.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that, within the parameters set down by Turner, the U.N. will select the projects funded by his donations.
Officials are sensitive to complaints that an individual, rather than the U.N.'s member countries, could be perceived to be deciding organization policy.
The $100 million a year that Turner will donate exceeds the annual amount paid by all but seven of the U.N.'s 185 member countries for the organization’s operations and peacekeeping budgets, which total about $2.6 billion.
“I think it’s a wonderful gesture, and I hope it is a sign of things to come,” Annan said. “It shows his belief in the organization and in international cooperation, and I hope it inspires the governments to pay what they owe.”
U.N. member states were nearly $2.6 billion behind in their payments as of Friday, Annan’s office announced.
The largest debtor is the United States, which owes $1.5 billion. Turner’s donation will not end the cash crisis because, under the U.N. charter, donations from individuals cannot be used for general administrative costs or injected into the regular budget.
“It’s an add-on to . . . the existing program of work,” Eckhard said.
But Turner, 58, who long has supported the U.N. and other internationalist efforts, said he hopes to persuade others to augment his donation.
“This giving, I hope it’s contagious,” he said at a news conference in Los Angeles, where he flew immediately after the dinner. “The U.N. operations are hamstrung because the biggest member is behind on its dues.”
He encouraged people to “give away the money they can’t figure . . . out what to do with.”
He also joked with Thursday’s dinner audience that his original idea was to wipe out the U.S. debt and embarrass Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a U.N. critic who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has impeded U.S. funding for the world body.
“I thought about buying the U.S. debt, at a discount of course, and then going to Jesse Helms and saying, ‘Pay up or I’ll sue,’ ” Turner said.
His financial advisors, he added, recommended against it.
Legislation pending in Congress would repay between $800 million and $900 million in the American back dues but would tie reimbursement to specific reforms in U.N. procedures and a reduction in the amount the United States pays from 25% to 20% of the total U.N. budget.
Other countries represented here have been very critical of the American approach. Canadian Ambassador Fowler labeled it “blackmail” Friday.
But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned in Washington that the current deal is the best the U.N. will get.
“If the United Nations waits for a better proposal with more money from the U.S. Congress, it is likely to get a proposal with more requirements [for reform] and less money,” she told a news conference Friday.
Most officials at the U.N. shrugged off the prospect that the Turner donation will influence Congress, but some held out hope that the gift will bring the U.N. some needed positive publicity.
“A gesture like this can revive interest in the United Nations all over the country,” Italian Ambassador Paolo Fulci said. “And it’s so important that the United Nations get the support of the people in the United States, not just the government of the United States.”
But Peter Rodman, director of national security programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington, was skeptical about the potential of Turner’s act altering the world body’s public image.
“It’s a charitable act that deserves some credit, but it’s also consistent with his general view of the world,” Rodman said. “There’s a naive quality to it all that might diminish its impact.”
U.N. officials said they believed that the $1-billion donation was the largest onetime contribution ever to a single recipient, although others have given more over their lifetimes to various causes.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, long has solicited private donations through national fund-raising committees.
In 1996, private sources accounted for $300 million, or 32% of the UNICEF budget.
But the U.N. overall has only recently begun seeking private donations. The largest until Thursday was $25 million donated for refugee relief in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 by philanthropist George Soros.
Times staff writers Sallie Hofmeister in Los Angeles and Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.