Kathy Bushkin Calvin, chief executive officer of the United Nations Foundation during the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo by: Monika Flueckiger / WEC

Though the media spotlight was constantly on him, U.S. President Barack Obama took an action that did not make the headlines shortly after taking office: He paid almost $1 billion in U.S. arrears with the United Nations.

In a recent interview with Devex, U.N. FoundationCEO Kathy Bushkin Calvin applauded Obama’s move, noting that during the Bush administration, the U.S. underpaid and paid late its dues with the global body. She said Obama’s action showed his commitment to multilateralism.

“Having a president who understands the value of multilateral institutions is important,” Calvin said. “But we still have to lobby it every year, and we have to give him and his administration support for the U.N., as well as all the big issues like global health, AIDS, climate change, and all the things that the U.S. and the U.N. do together.”

Lobbying U.S. government backing for the work of the world organization has been UNF’s mission since its inception in 1998. The foundation emerged following philanthropist Ted Turner’s $1 billion donation in support of U.N. causes. Its activities range from advocating for U.N. funding to providing grants to U.N. programs on women and girls, children’s health, and energy and climate as well as establishing public-private collaborations to help finance these initiatives.

Devex met with Calvin on the sidelines of the “Women Deliver” maternal health conference in Washington, D.C., in June. In this interview, the former AOL Time Warner Foundation president discussed specific U.N. programs supported by UNF and the challenges that come with pursuing its mission. She also shared her views on the world’s progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Why do so many U.N. agencies such as the World Food Program need to seek out new funding annually?

A lot of these agencies are what they call voluntarily funded. So, they have to go to donors and raise their funds every year. And almost all of their funds are earmarked, and they get them when they need them for a particular project or purpose.

I give [WFP Executive Director] Josette Sheeran a lot of credit for trying to shift the dynamic to have a reserve on hand for what they need. They’ve had a terrible run on their reserves.

The U.N. three years ago created the CERF, the Central Emergency Response Fund. They started this reserve fund so they could have it ready when there is an emergency. Otherwise, the U.N. has to make an emergency appeal every time.

The U.N. Foundation provides a tax-exempt vehicle to donate to the U.N.

What do you do beside advocate for U.N. funding?

The second thing is to support innovative programs within the U.N. in three main areas: women and girls, children’s health, and energy and climate. We not only give grants to these programs, we also build public-private partnerships to support them. Ted Turner’s vision was that his money would only be effective if it brought other people’s money into the U.N. to support programs along with us, because, sooner or later, even a billion dollars is used up and goes away. So, we’ve built public-private partnerships almost from day one, and they’re large partnerships.

The biggest one is called the Measles Initiative. It has funding partners including the American Red Cross, the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], the Canadian version of USAID – it’s called CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency] – and Vodafone Corp. The implementing partners are WHO [World Health Organization] and UNICEF. That partnership has managed to immunize over 250 million kids over the past five years. It’s done a phenomenal job of bringing down the death rate.

We have a second big partnership with the Vodafone Corp. around mobile health: the use of mobile technology for health and emergency communications. It’s a $30 million partnership; it’s lasted five years. We’ve done a ton of work on equipping health workers with mobile devices so they can do information gathering, notifying when there’s an out-of-stock drug or a breakout of disease. It is a huge shift to move from paper to [mobile communications], and we’re very exciting to see that happen. So, that’s been a terrifically successful partnership.

The third partnership is called Nothing but Nets, and that’s our campaign to raise funds to buy bed nets for controlling malaria. We’ve raised about $30 million in three years. There, our partnerships range from the National Basketball Association to the Methodist and Lutheran Churches, which are each raising $100 million, to the Orkin pest control company. It’s a strange bedfellows’ kind of deal, but it works. And, most importantly, about 125,000 individuals, mostly young people [are among our partners]. It’s powerful. We ask people to make a $10 contribution, and, of course, most people make more like a $60 contribution. $10 sends a net and saves a life. It’s a very tangible deliverable.

What is your approach to advocating for the U.N. in front of U.S. Congress?

Our whole message is information. We try to tell most members of Congress how what the U.N. does is in the U.S. strategic interest. We have a website that goes through each of the 18 peacekeeping missions that the U.N. runs, and we go through how each one is serving U.S. strategic interests, whether it is reducing the burden that we have to bear of sending our own troops into Haiti, for instance, being right there in our hemisphere, to reducing our costs as part of NATO, to providing a development base to lots of countries in Africa, where obviously Americans want to see a stable peace-building environment. Our message is not so much a moral one. It’s that it’s a strategic one for the U.S.

The U.N. is not allowed to testify and to lobby Congress. It’s kind of weird. If we didn’t exist, you’d say, “Wow, you should.”

We will often work with them on our Hill contacts, and help them deliver their message, and, where appropriate, help them with the actual delivery.

[The U.N. Development Program] had a lot of problems last year with a scandal in North Korea, so we gave them a lot of support on that.

There seems to have been a lot of hostility toward the U.N. from various parts of the U.S. government in recent years.

For years, the U.N. was cruising along at about a 70 percent approval rating, which is high in this day and age when no institution has anything close to 50 percent, because I think people genuinely appreciated the fact that there was a global body where differences could be resolved.

Two things happened [to create hostility toward the U.N.]: the Iraq war, where the U.S. perceived the U.N. not to be in its strategic interest because the U.N. did not go along with supporting the U.S. decision to invade. [At the same time,] people around the world felt that the U.N. was too close to U.S. interests and did not do enough to stop the war. So, the U.N. got caught in a really nasty [dynamic of] distrust from almost all sides. So, that was the first drop in the U.S. poll ratings.

The second drop came about three years later, when the oil-for-food scandal came forward, and this was an investigation into whether the U.N. had failed to prevent Saddam Hussein from using U.N. monies that were being delivered into Iraq to make sure that people were fed and polio was vaccinated against and all the things that the U.N. is required to do in places where it works – that some of the monies were siphoned off for weapons. So, there was a big scandal, and, again, Americans began to say, “Wow, this doesn’t look like a very effective institution.”

Poll numbers dropped under 50 percent. Now, they are back up to 60 [percent]. I attribute it to three things: I think people have seen things like the [Indian Ocean] tsunami and Haiti, where the U.N. has actually done a fantastic job, and they understand the need for an institution that coordinates humanitarian aid; Obama himself is a multilateralist, and he’s changed the dialogue, and he’s made the case for that; and even the Congress has shifted somewhat, so we have a more open Congress.

But there’s still an uphill battle. The third thing was that we had Ambassador [John] Bolton, who was a U.N. ambassador [August 2005 to December 2006] who was also a U.N. critic. So, we have a different context overall. That said, it’s still a job every day to remind people what the U.N. is doing, what its value is, what it’s doing, how we get our money’s worth; that Japan pays a lot, that Europe pays a lot, and that we have a vehicle in the Security Council. I think Susan Rice has been a great ambassador. Americans see her using the U.N. for our interests.

In 2000, U.N. members agreed to meet an ambitious set of poverty reduction targets within 15 years. We hear a lot about the MDGs in the run-up to September’s high-profile MDG summit in New York, but often in the context of them not being met. Is that a problem?

China and India are probably both going to beat them. Lots of [countries in] Africa are not, but some parts of Africa are going to meet them. They were really ambitious goals when they were set in the year 2000.

General economic growth is the biggest part of the answer. There’s not enough foreign assistance, development aid in the world to address the problems. [What is needed is a combination of] political will, economic investment and foreign assistance. [So, the challenge is,] how do we change political will and policy? How do we ensure that these countries are stable enough that they attract and obtain real investment? And, finally, what do we do in the short term to make sure that they have some assistance, so people aren’t dying and they can start making the progress that they need to make?

So, if you look at the places where we are going to meet the goals, there’s lessons to be learned from places that have … good governance, places that have real economic growth, places that have had real serious economic investment, and you say, “How do we get the other places to get there?”

Second, it’s always tough to be in that situation where you’re measuring how far we haven’t gotten, because you’ve got to mobilize people to do more, to get to the final outcome.

Hardly anyone in this country even knows about these goals. You know where they know about them? They know about them in the churches. The churches are hugely committed. The top companies, the big Fortune 500 companies, are all committed in different ways. This is the piece that’s going to take off in my mind big time in the next five years. We’ll see a corporate citizenship approach to the Millennium Development Goals that’s going to make a big difference. There’s a thing called the global compact that 4,000 companies have signed on to, where they agree to certain principles. The next big move for that whole group is to mobilize on the MDGs.

You know, businesses will be much more concrete than the global humanitarian system.

What do you think is the takeaway from this massive maternal health conference?

Maternal health is such an interesting one, since it seems like we know exactly what to do, and yet, it is lagging the furthest. When we do polling in this country, it comes out seventh among the seven goals in terms of people’s sense of importance and sense of feasibility in terms of what can be done. When you dig under that, they tend to say water, because water is more universal, and they tend to say water because water is something that they can understand. It’s technical: We can just provide purification techniques, we know what to do.

There’s this sense that maternal health is really big and complicated, and that it requires hospitals, and [people think,] “Don’t mothers die anyway?” There’s this helpless sense. I think what this conference is doing very effectively is talking about how simple the interventions and solutions are, how we now know that we’ve made some progress. For a while, we thought we hadn’t made progress, and now, the numbers are showing that we actually have, and they are so related to other things, whether it’s nutrition, or AIDS, or economic development. It’s really important to have these conversations because it changes the way we all talk about it.

What most surprised you when you joined the U.N. Foundation in 2003?

I was surprised that the same debate has been going on for about 30 years over how to make aid more effective. When you come out of the private sector, where innovation happens overnight, and there’s a sense of urgency and impatience, I found that shocking that we’re still dealing with the same issues. It’s not just a critique of the humanitarian workers or government bureaucracies, but it’s a combination of all of that, that these are systems that are run by different sets of processes [government bureaucracies and politics].

How can private sector practices inform the world of development cooperation?

When you do get the private sector involved, it doesn’t take much for movement to happen. Five years ago, malaria was dead in the water. Nobody talked about malaria. It had been around, and it was this thing killing millions of people every ear, but nobody thought anything could be done. Three things happened. The technology changed: Suddenly, we had insecticide-treated nets that stayed treated for five years. Jeff Sachs said this is a quick win, and, suddenly, political will started to change. And third, Ray Chambers, who is now the malaria envoy for dollar a year for the [U.N. secretary-general’s anti-malaria program], who is a businessman, came in and said, “We need a business plan.”

And they have a plan now to eradicate malaria by 2015, and it has moved mountains. Money has come in really significant ways. Governments are mobilized because they see it’s possible. The Gates Foundation even was [initially] a skeptic. They weren’t touching malaria. Now, they’re on board big time; they’re one of the leaders. It won’t be totally eradicated [by 2015], but it will be controlled in a lot of places.

I give the Bush administration credit for the Millennium Challenge Corp. It had a philosophy and point of view that said, “You’ve got to tie aid to governance,” and that you can drive governance changes if you tie aid to it. I think that was a genuinely business approach that has had some success, and the Obama administration has kept it, to its credit.

What I see is that there is this shift in the business world, and there is this shift in the nonprofit world, to a new hybrid. The business world used to be [about] bottom line only, and the business world now has a much different stakeholder approach; it defines its citizenry differently. I see that in lots and lot of companies. And nonprofits are treating themselves with a much more rigorous bottom-line approach – that there’s got to be a deliverable at the end of the day, the new philanthropy outcomes, metrics, all of that. Both are moving towards the center, toward each other in some interesting ways. And now, we have this new category in the middle, the social entrepreneurial model that Muhammad Yunus and others are talking about, the triple bottom line where the profits get invested back in. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on where the two sides are learning from each other, the two sides are coming closer together.

What do you say to members of Congress who ask, “Why spend taxpayer dollars on foreign aid instead of letting philanthropies take care of it?”

I think most people feel their government ought to be doing this in the world, that this is in our strategic interest as a nation, that we want to show that Americans are caring and generous, and that government belongs out there in a productive, investment-oriented, but also humanitarian light.

We find that most members of Congress – and most citizens – buy the argument that the U.S. has a role and needs to be a player on the world development stage. We don’t have the luxury of staying focused on our knitting. I don’t think anybody wants to see [a country’s official development assistance] at 10 percent [of gross domestic product], but it’s not even close to 0.7 [percent, as pledged by wealthy nations,] at this point, which still most Americans don’t know. They think it is 10 times what it is.

I think the AIDS crisis brought a lot of this home to people. I think it brought the whole world closer together. I think they heard it in the churches, that we all have an obligation and we are all a global village – a lot of that stuff that in the last 10 years changed the way most Americans feel. Now, in the last three years, with the economic crisis, I think people have come back to the idea that, hey, we have problems here, we have to fix these first.

[Regarding the foreign aid budget,] I don’t see it growing, not at this point. We’re not expecting big increases.

About the author

  • Sam Loewenberg

    Sam Loewenberg is a journalist who covers the intersection of global health, business, government and politics. He has done research on global health and public policy at Harvard University as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation and at the Safra Center for Ethics, and at Columbia as a Knight-Bagehot fellow. His work has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Scientific American, Health Affairs, Playboy, and The Lancet, as well as on PBS. His website is www.samloewenberg.com.