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Turner's $1 billion gift starts giving

The list of grants reads like a wish list for making the world a better place.

There's $700,000 to promote responsible fatherhood in Central America, $1.5 million to save coral reefs, $1 million to halt the spread of AIDS in Ukraine.

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A year and a half ago, Ted Turner announced he would give $1 billion to help the United Nations help the world. It was called the largest philanthropic gift ever made by a private individual.

Now that gift is starting to make things happen for the troubled and cash-strapped UN.

It has underwritten more than $109 million in UN projects addressing environmental problems, the needs of poor people in developing countries - and efforts to reform the UN itself.

"We welcome the fact that [Turner's] foundation is very open-minded and keen on projects that are innovative in their approach," says UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette. "I think it's a very good thing for the UN."

Others question whether the funds give a private institution too much power over a public one at a time when many member nations are in arrears on their dues.

The United Nations Foundation, the Washington-based public charity Turner established to administer his gift, has funded more than 70 free-standing UN projects, most in support of projects on women and population, children's health, and the environment.

A $1.1 million grant will provide food, shelter, and social services to 3,200 Sierra Leone children who were abducted and forced to become guerrilla fighters. The UN Development Program (UNDP) has $3 million to extend "micro-credit" lending to women in eight poor countries, a project modeled on Bangladesh's highly successful Grameen Bank. The bank's creator, Muhammad Yunus, sits on the UN Foundation's board.

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Other grants range from land-mine-awareness programs in Bosnia to internal-restructuring support for UNDP and the World Health Organization, both of which are under new leadership.

"When someone recognizes what you are doing and makes a huge commitment to support you, that's a great morale boost," says Stirling Scruggs of the UN Population Fund in New York, a major recipient of Turner support. "The interesting thing is that people around the world who will be served by these funds will never know where they came from."

A 'two key' approach

"Turner's gift was a boost ... for the UN," says Somendu Banerjee of the UN Fund for International Partnerships (UNFIP), a new office of the Secretariat charged with administering private gifts.

"We've had private contributions in the past, but never of this order of magnitude," he says. "A billion dollars is a billion dollars."

In negotiating the terms of the gift, UNFIP and Turner's UN Foundation also have created an innovative model for harnessing private donations in service of international public service.

The Foundation and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan have developed a "two key" approach, by which the only projects eligible for grant consideration are those developed by UN agencies and which Mr. Annan judges to be in accordance with UN policy goals.

UN agencies submit proposals to UN headquarters where UNFIP decides which ones to submit to the UN Foundation. The Foundation then decides which projects it wishes to fund, in accordance with its own priorities.

This system appears to have allayed concerns of some member states that wealthy businessmen might, in effect, "buy up" the UN, whose yearly regular, peacekeeping, and development budgets total about $8 billion to $9 billion each year, and are almost entirely made up of government contributions.

"We have operated within agreed UN policy, so it's not as if we're coming in and saying we're going to fund these things because they're our ideas," says UN Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth, former Colorado Senator and Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. "We're not going around the secretary-general or the UN, we're going through them."

Not everyone is satisfied. Jim Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a New York-based organization that monitors UN financing, says the gift sets an "extremely bad precedent" for the UN. "It places this public institution far too much under the sway of a private institution," he says, adding that other philanthropists might have less laudable priorities than Turner.

Country contributions are flagging

Such concerns have added weight because Turner's gift comes at a time when the US and other countries are cutting back voluntary contributions to the UN, and even refuse to pay their mandatory, legally bound contributions.

The US is by far the worst offender, owing between $1 and $1.5 billion in arrears to the UN, depending on whose figures you use. The US shortfall has hampered peacekeeping operations and angered other member states.

A congressional bill to pay a substantial portion of those arrears is stranded over conservatives' concerns that a fraction of the money might ultimately aid family-planning organizations overseas that might work to ease abortion restrictions. President Clinton vetoed an earlier version of the bill that would have prohibited such use of US funds.

The US must pay about $300 million of its debt by year's end or it will automatically lose its vote in the General Assembly, joining other deadbeats like Equatorial Guinea and Yugoslavia.

Ruth Wedgwood, senior fellow for international organizations at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says this outcome would be disastrous for both the US and the UN. "It would be like filing a divorce proceeding," she says.

For their part, Turner's grant-making team has been financing public education and lobbying efforts aimed at securing US arrears payments. Despite hiring former Republican national committee chairman Haley Barbour, the lobbying effort has yet to break the impasse. (Public advocacy activities are conducted through Turner's Better World Fund, a sister charity with the same staff, offices, and board as the UN Foundation.)

Turner's twin foundations are public charities, so they must generate at least 10 percent of their funds from sources other than Turner himself. The CNN founder has repeatedly said that he hopes his gift prompts other wealthy individuals to make similar gifts via the UN Foundation.

"Around the world private capital is increasing and public capital is decreasing," says Mr. Wirth. "We have to figure out how [UN] institutions can better work with private capital than they do now."

As to whether large private gifts will inadvertently cause governments to reduce voluntary contributions to the UN, Wirth said it's too early to know. "But I think we're about to prove it's not the case by getting the US to pay its arrears," he says. "It's in our national interest to make the UN work."

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