15 May 2005

When Ted Turner announced in 1997 his $1 billion contribution to the U.N. he became every internationalist's hero. By end of April 2005, he was wondering during a review meeting where and how all the money thus far was spent.

The two main funds, a U.N. Fund and a Fund for a Better U.N. could be separate or one and the same. Much of the expenditure was in salaries. A heated competition took place in 1997 as to who should be the main U.N. liaison with the Fund. Then Under-Secretary General for Administration and Management wanted Ms. Angela Kane while newly-elected Secretary General Kofi Annan named Miles Stobey who lasted a few weeks. Since then, Amir Dosal kept a steady hand and a level head while communicator Jean Claude Faby looked into strategic questions. Former U.S. Governor Timothy Worth directed the operations from Washington and Gillian Sorensen whose time at U.N. Headquarters came to an end and was accommodated at the New York office. A number of keen and clearly eager young ladies shuffled between D.C. and New York participating in meetings sponsored by the fund and sharing in luncheons and dinners where one or two tables were sponsored in the conviction that such generous moves were crucial in building a better U.N.

Eventually, it transpired that some of these projects -- let alone those sponsored benefits -- were like buying fish while it was still in the sea. The Communications projects in particular turned out to be almost like travel junkets, particularly financing tours around the world by self-promoter Shashi Tharoor while the U.N. image was plummeting to an unprecedented low. A series of seminars to deal with a negative perception in the Arab world at an enormous price produced little results. The first was a gathering of U.N. Information Officers from the region which could not produce even a set of proposals; even when it did after six months, the proposals drafted at headquarters were shot down in the field. The second meeting involved an invitation to headquarters of over 25 editors who were so badly handled that most of their key articles were negative ("Annan Was an Elegant Apology For Weakness" -- see previous unforum issues).

The third was in Beirut where every one was told that workable ideas were desperately needed and "money was no object." At least ten people were paid to come from New York, and possibly Washington for a week, very few of them played any visible role. A useful opportunity was wasted by a shifting span of attention and Headquarters' political maneuvers. At least one other invitation was extended to Arab editors in New York -- again at great expense -- with the message that Kofi Annan was being criticized by American media because he stood up to the U.S. in Iraq. However, that line was quickly reversed after it was leaked by participants and a hurried discreet denial was made. That is, expenses were again wasted, as most of those arranging these seminars had never worked in the region and didn't know key editors there.

That was just one example. It does not preclude many other very good ones. Those by some of the field programs like UNICEF produced remarkable effect. It would be helpful if a list of approved projects, including those done within the United States, were made public. The downside was that in some way the Fund was sometimes treated as a cash cow. Whenever funds were needed, a presentation was made, and -- in a keen desire to help -- more money was spent. In increasing cases, money seemed to be wasted. Most recently, with "Reform" being discussed, further approaches were made and, again, approved.

That may have led to the April meeting. Whatever were its confidential details, the upshot of it was: "we should be more careful and review more closely." For never has so much money been spent on so few results.