Global Policy Forum

UN Looks to Donors for Aid


But efforts to win private funds
spur fears of competition, commercialism

By Thomas J. Billitteri

From the issue dated September 9, 1999

The booklet's front cover reads "Catalogue," but this is no showcase for designer jeans or gleaming kitchenware. Mailed to 2,500 Americans, the pamphlet lists dozens of former battle zones around the world where unexploded bombs and land mines threaten to maim or kill civilians. It also gives the prices -- $20,500 for Bos Knoar Village, in Cambodia, and more than $80,000 for Luka Brcko, in Bosnia -- that donors can pay to cover the cost of defusing those grim legacies of brutality.

The fund-raising effort, called Adopt-a-Minefield, is the brainchild of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, a New York charity that works closely with the United Nations to muster public support for the world forum. The association began collecting money for the land-mine project this spring and soon plans to turn over some $300,000 in private donations to the United Nations for de-mining efforts. Next week it will post the catalogue on a Web site to make it even easier for people to donate.

"Clearing mines is a matter of money," says William H. Luers, chairman of the United Nations Association and former president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. "With 80 to 90 million mines in the world, where does that money come from? The U.N. doesn't have it." Mr. Luers' lament -- that the U.N. is short of money in the face of massive global need -- is increasingly prevalent these days. And so is his organization's approach to dealing with the problem. In a strategy that is stirring both praise and rancor within the world of international relief and development, the U.N. and a number of closely affiliated charitable allies around the globe are reaching out as never before to private donors for philanthropic aid.

The fund-raising efforts come at a time when the U.N. also is seeking to forge new ties with corporations in hopes of spurring economic development in poor countries.

The increasing emphasis on attracting private aid, critics say, could lead to a damaging competition for philanthropic dollars, allow commercialism to shape relief projects that traditionally have been benevolent in nature, and permit wealthy donors to influence U.N. policy. "If global good comes up for sale to the highest bidder or the shiniest logo, then we've lost something," says Will Day, chief executive of CARE International United Kingdom.

The most visible sign of the trend toward private giving to U.N. causes is Ted Turner's pledge of up to $1-billion for health, environmental, and population programs. So far, Mr. Turner's U.N. Foundation, which he set up to distribute the gift, has awarded $108-million in grants to the U.N. Besides the Turner gift, U.N. agencies also have received $14.5-million for health and refugee-relief work from a foundation created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. But the U.N. is receiving a growing variety of other kinds of private support as well.

For example, the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s chief antipoverty agency, is teaming with Cisco Systems to start an innovative Internet project called NetAid. The project, which involves scores of companies and individual participants, is aimed at educating people about poverty issues and inviting them to make on-line donations of money, time, goods, services, or expertise to relief, environmental, and advocacy charities. The Web site is scheduled to be unveiled this week, and the venture gets into full swing next month with a three-city concert that is to be broadcast on the Internet and on radio and television. Cisco, which says it is pouring $10-million to $20-million into NetAid, is working with the U.N. Development Program to establish a foundation to disperse some of the gifts.

Likewise, a U.S. charity that promotes the work of the U.N.'s chief refugee-protection and relief agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, is taking aggressive new steps to reach private donors. The U.S. Association for U.N.H.C.R. is inviting people to make credit-card donations through the Internet, planning a fund-raising campaign among black Americans for refugee assistance in Africa, and laying the groundwork for a direct-mail drive and a planned-giving program.

The United Nations' growing willingness to reach out to private sources of support reflects the forces of globalization and a changing view of managing world affairs, says Timothy E. Wirth, president of Mr. Turner's U.N. Foundation and a former U.S. Senator from Colorado. "The world is changing very quickly, and governments have to change too," he says. "The old way of doing business doesn't work anymore."

One reason the old ways are giving way to the new, experts say, is that governments are increasingly resistant to paying for foreign-assistance programs. The U.S. government, the U.N.'s biggest source of money, is more than $1.7-billion in arrears on its dues because of resistance by congressional conservatives to U.N. policies on abortion and other issues. Other countries, such as Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, and Brazil, also owe the U.N. money. What's more, many governments have cut back on foreign aid in recent years, putting additional pressure on the U.N. as it faces a host of new challenges, from the spread of AIDS in Africa to post-war reconstruction in the Balkans.

Of course, private aid is not entirely new to the United Nations. The Ford Foundation, for instance, made its first grant to a U.N. agency in 1951, and it has distributed $1.7-million in grants to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees since 1981. The most established model for private U.N. support is the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, which since its inception in 1946 has depended solely on voluntary contributions from government and private individuals, companies, and charities. Last year a third of the agency's $966-million in revenue came from private sources, much of it from the sale of greeting cards and other products by 37 national committees that serve as UNICEF's advocacy and fund-raising arm in industrialized countries. Largely because of the committees' work, donations to UNICEF tripled from 1987 to 1996.

Despite UNICEF's success at raising private dollars, however, critics are leery of extending the practice to other U.N. agencies in a big way. For one thing, they contend that by accepting money from private sources, the U.N. is letting its 185 member nations off the hook for their financial obligations to the world forum. Critics also say that it is a conflict of interest for an agency like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to be both a coordinator of activities carried out by relief charities and also a rival of those same charities for donor money.

"The core problem is that the U.N. and its specialized agencies are not receiving adequate funds from government," says Charles MacCormack, chief executive officer of Save the Children, an international relief charity in Westport, Conn. "But the solution has to be in generating the government funding, not strategically entering the private fund-raising markets around the world."

Others worry that by collaborating with wealthy donors such as Mr. Turner, the United Nations risks letting outsiders who may have financial motives shape its policies. Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank in Washington, raised that point this year in an article that was highly critical of Mr. Turner's U.N. gift. The article charged that Mr. Turner's financial support for United Nations activities threatens to wield "undue influence" over U.N. policy decisions and international relations and to make the forum a "pawn for tax-exempt special interests." Mr. Wirth says, however, that the U.N. Foundation has been "very careful to operate within agreed U.N. policy" and "to fund only projects that the U.N. agrees ought to get funded."

Against the backdrop of its bid to increase private donations, the United Nations is working to form strategic partnerships with multinational corporations. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been a major advocate of the move, calling for "a new partnership" between the United Nations and private enterprise as a way to spur economic growth in impoverished nations and help the U.N. deal with stubborn environmental, human-rights, and labor issues. U.N. officials say such alliances are not intended to produce corporate grants to the U.N., but rather business investments that have the potential to raise living standards in developing regions while also generating profits for the participating companies.

As one example of the nascent partnership effort, the U.N. Development Program has been having discussions with more than a dozen major companies, including Dow Chemical and AT&T, aimed at finding ways to work collaboratively to promote economic growth in developing countries. Each company has contributed $50,000 to the United Nations, which says the money covers the cost of the talks and strategic planning for potential collaboration.

Some charity officials worry, however, that corporations, with their global reach and marketing prowess, will try to exploit humanitarian endeavors for profit, perhaps going so far as to sponsor refugee camps or sanitation facilities the way companies sponsor sports arenas and museum displays. Others argue that some of the same companies that the United Nations is courting helped to create the very environmental and human-rights problems that continue to plague the U.N. "It's a huge contradiction," says Joshua Karliner, executive director of Transnational Resource and Action Center, a watchdog organization in California. He charges the U.N. Development Program with engaging in a "Faustian bargain" in its effort to reach out to multinational companies.

Supporters of the corporate-partnership strategy acknowledge the risks of U.N. alliances with business but argue that multinational enterprise is too important a force in the world these days for the U.N. to ignore. What's more, they say, many global corporations are much more sensitive to human rights and the environment than they were several decades ago, when multinational companies were the bete noire of many U.N. advocates. "World governments are trying to solve problems, and giant corporations globally are trying to develop economic growth and wealth -- and maybe cutting some corners in the process," Mr. Luers of the U.N. Association says. But, he adds, "they've got to talk to each other."

Still, U.N. officials are cautious about the new business alliances. In remarks this year, Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, said that "without due diligence, one runs the risk of becoming associated with companies whose past records suggest that they may not be the best partners."

While the U.N.'s corporate ties have important implications for charities, it is the effort to tap private donors for agencies such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that could have the most far-reaching influence. While private money is not a huge portion of the refugee agency's $1.2-billion annual budget, it is nonetheless significant -- and, it appears, growing. Among the agency's top 30 donors through the first eight months of this year were private contributors in a half-dozen countries, including the United States. Together they gave $24.1-million, more than all but seven donor governmental entities.

Part of those private gifts came to U.N.H.C.R. through its own fund-raising efforts, including solicitations for financial help on its World-Wide Web site. But orchestrating much of the agency's private fund-raising efforts are the U.S. Association for U.N.H.C.R. and charities or national associations in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany. The money is used to help pay for refugee protection and assistance and to educate the public about the U.N.'s role in refugee issues. Charities like the U.S. Association for U.N.H.C.R. offer American donors an advantage over giving directly to the United Nations. In the United States, gifts made to the U.N. are not tax-deductible, whereas donations that go through a charity such as the association are. The U.S. Association for U.N.H.C.R. raised $3.1-million in individual and corporate cash and in-kind donations in the wake of this year's war in Kosovo, according to Executive Director Jeffrey A. Meer. That is more than the association received in private gifts in all its previous nine years of existence, he says.

Mr. Meer acknowledges that stark news-media images of the Kosovo war prompted many donors to give. But he also sees the spurt in contributions as a sign of the fund-raising potential of the U.N. refugee agency long after the Balkan crisis is over. "There's a dramatic upswing in public support" for the U.N.'s refugee work, he says. "It's tremendously significant, and very new."

Whether Mr. Meer's assessment is accurate, one thing seems certain: Like other aspects of the U.N.'s outreach to private sources of help, the effort to raise money for refugee aid has the potential for controversy. Already, some charity officials express concern about U.N. competition for donor dollars. "We would prefer to put pressure on the governments to come up with the money," says Anne Bissell, a representative of Oxfam Great Britain. "There's only a certain amount of money available for humanitarian relief, and if the U.N.H.C.R. is taking a part of that, it's making the pot smaller for everybody." Others say they have no objection to the United Nations' seeking financial support from private donors. "Given the fact that funding from governments has been inadequate, I can well understand why U.N.H.C.R. is looking to private sources," says Peter Bell, chief executive of CARE U.S.A., in Atlanta.

If competition for money isn't enough to create tensions, the nagging issue of alliances between the U.N. and the business world also can do it. This spring, the Italian clothier Benetton placed ads in approximately 50 newspapers and magazines to solicit money for U.N.H.C.R. and its work with Kosovar refugees. Known for its shocking advertising imagery, the clothing company used as its central image a picture of what looked like a pool of blood in the shape of Kosovo. Critics found the ad offensive and said it was inappropriate for the U.N. to link its reputation with a company that seemed willing to use genocide to promote its commercial brand. But Mr. Meer defends the Benetton ad. "I personally thought it was tasteful," he says. As for its grim rendering of a blood-soaked Kosovo, Mr. Meer says, "Would you rather see photos of some of the victims?"



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