Clinton Global Initiative: Does It Really Make a Difference?
Note: While this blog is almost entirely China focused, the following post wraps up coverage of the Fifth Annual Clinton Global Initiative Meeting and does not address US-China business or development issues. To my regular readers, I promise to have something China-related for you soon!
Robert Frank, Senior Writer for the Wall Street Journal has written an excellent article, The Real Star at Clinton Global Initiative, which begins:
“I have always wondered if the Clinton Global Initiative is more publicity than philanthropy. Do people really give or do more because of CGI? Or do the rich and powerful spend four days in Manhattan discussing well-worn social issues and patting themselves on the back for things they would have done anyway?”
I’ve just wrapped up an event-filled week tweeting and blogging from the Fifth Annual Clinton Global Initiative Meeting and had previously served the organization as a volunteer, but am in no way on their payroll or professionally affiliated. Now that this disclaimer is out of the way, I can assure you that Mr. Frank is not alone in pondering the validity of CGI. To be honest, I wondered similarly at one time and have since received several inquiries from people who asked, “what good is it doing?” and “why should we care?” This skepticism is magnified when media outlets give more coverage to Jessica Alba’s appearance at the CGI Opening Reception than they do to her participation with the 1Goal Campaign, which she promoted at the meeting on Thursday. As a press member this year, it was also disconcerting for me to see that the population of journalists, bloggers and photographers increased threefold when Brad Pitt was in the building for his Make it Right CGI promise. In fact, there are many criticisms that could be made based upon CGI audience demographics (who receive camera time) and the tone of publicity it receives. So, is CGI really just a Kumbaya session for the rich and famous? Does it make any difference at all?
Another disclaimer: in the past five years I have either volunteered, interned and/or consulted for seven US-based not-for-profits (however, I have no experience working abroad for an NGO). Given this perspective, among “do good” organizations, Clinton Global Initiative is by far the best model of its kind that I have come across thus far. This post outlines what makes it work, why you should care, and where the organization falls short.
Why Clinton Global Initiative Works
1. Diversity Drives Innovation: The Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting is rare in that it facilitates the convergence of people from such vastly dissimilar circumstances, economic tiers, countries and affiliations to come together under one roof and share what’s on their minds. Yes, there are queens and rock stars, but there are also survivors of genocide and genital mutilation, non-profit leaders and high-powered CEOs, Ivy League college students and brilliant adults who have never received a formal education. And, over the four days these CGI sessions take place, attendees are given a fairly open opportunity to socialize with one another (this does not apply to press, however). True innovation rarely emerges from environments which actively support “sameness,”- if you surround yourself with people who are exactly like you, growth will not occur. CGI, for at least four short days, is like a super-charged hydroponic greenhouse.
2. Innovation Costs Money: Many of us have, at one time or another, come up with what we consider to an excellent idea- whether in the name of profit or philanthropy- only to find ourselves encountering the frustrating question, “but how I will fund it?” Or, perhaps we’ve already gotten our “excellent idea” off the ground and now seek expansion. CGI provides sessions which act as a platform to examine options for funding while identifying ways that non-profit, for-profit and government actors can ensure responsible and high-impact investing. Additionally, the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting is structured to act as a matchmaking service between the “haves” and the “have nots” and, as President Obama pointed out, given these tough economic times, “private groups can bring about change in ways government cannot.”
3. Money Demands Accountability: I don’t know about you, but if I made or reiterated a promise in a room filled with hundreds of global leaders, approximately a thousand members of the press, several video cameras and Bill Clinton himself, I’d probably want to make good on it. Unlike traditional NGOs, think tanks, or international summits, CGI doesn’t just talk about what needs to be done or churn out impressive-sounding recommendations. Instead, CGI expects its attendees to make Commitments to Action, described as “new, specific, and measurable initiatives…that may focus on diverse concerns, regions and types of activities. For example, members may develop a new business model that generates social, environmental, or economic value; initiate, scale up or refocus a service or business project, or provide financial or in-kind support to an organization of their choice.” Progress reports are part of the deal.
4. Accountability Produces Results: According to their website, CGI members have:
- Given 10 million children a better education
- Cut C02 emissions by 60 million metric tons
- Protected or restored 33 million acres of forest
- Given 48 million people access to better healthcare
- Funded 270 microfinance institutions, assisting 3 million micro-entrepreneurs
- Treated 34 million people for neglected tropical diseases
Since 2005, it is estimated that members of Clinton Global Initiative have made commitments valued at $57 billion dollars ($9.4 billion this year alone); approximately one-quarter of the commitments made so far have been completed.
Why You Should Care
1. People Are Self-Interested: Let’s just get that little fact out of the way. Clinton Global Initiative provides real-time, unparalleled insights into future innovations in the realms of business, technology and philanthropy. This year’s attendees from Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Alibaba, Wal-Mart, JPMorgan, TIAA-CREF and dozens of other major global companies were encouraged to brainstorm on profitable ways to address a host of social and environmental issues and publicly address their ideas. So, what does this mean for you? If you just happen to be unemployed, underemployed or unhappy at your current place of employment, perhaps it’s time to take a break from Monster.com and instead tune into CGI. New and tangible plans need new talent, after all…
2. Self-Interest Begs Preservation: Terrorism. Human Trafficking. Global Warming. Regional Conflict. The Gender Gap. Unemployment. Financial Meltdown. Water Shortage. Natural Disaster. Illness. Poverty. Domestic Abuse. Urban Violence. Illiteracy. Food Shortage. Corruption. Forced Labor. Health Crisis. Clinton Global Initiative addresses these issues and works on tangible solutions towards improvement.
It is my unfortunate guarantee to you that at some point in your life, you or a loved one will be impacted by one or more of these issues (if you are not directly impacted by one or more of these issues already). Education + Action= Preservation.
3. Preservation Fuels Opportunity: It’s no coincidence that our economic, environmental and societal problems have brought concepts like social enterprise and greentech to the forefront. As President Clinton stated on the third day of this year’s CGI, “whether it’s providing housing to the homeless, education to the poor, or green technology to fix our climate crisis, the solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time require investments in human capital. Governments and companies need to make smart investment in public works and the labor force to spread the benefits of economic growth in millions more people around the world.”
Where CGI Falls Short
1. Celebrities Need Attention: As stated in a short CGI film narrated by Matt Damon, “Every five seconds, a child dies of hunger. Each year, we’re losing 6 million children. That’s more than the the population of Manhattan and Paris combined.” And, just in case you were wondering, Brad Pitt sported a pointy beard and Jessica Alba’s dress clashed with her hair. Celebrities seem to have become the backbone of CGI for both their high-dollar commitments and the visibility they bring to the organization. Unfortunately, their presence also has a way of shifting the media’s attention from the altruistic ethos of CGI and toward one that is both artificial and insulting to both the organization and the people it aims to help (disclaimer: I should note that I don’t blame this outcome on the celebrities themselves, but on the tabloid addiction much of our Western world has thanks to TMZ, ET, etc. But, I digress)…
2. Attention Gets Diverted: Did you tune into coverage of CGI? If so, were you paying more attention to Barbra Streisand, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher sightings than you were to the insights of Robert Zoellick, Helene D. Gayle or Hilda Solis? See #1.
3. Diversion Masks Reality: As much as I support the work of CGI, fundamental improvements are needed in the way the organization works. The most evident (and yet rarely discussed) flaw to me contradicts the moniker of CGI. While Clinton Global Initiative did include attendees from many countries, participation was not truly global; the vast majority hailed from the US, Europe, South Africa and to a lesser extent, Latin America. East and South Asia were almost entirely missing in action and the voice of the Middle East was also next to nil. Second, while the success of CGI is based upon the efforts of many admirable participants, the organization has also been involved with few individuals and companies that are not so admirable (Blackwater is one; I am also not a fan of a few celebrity and CEO CGI regulars who, based on their day-to-day activities, belie their “philanthropic face.”)
Ok, so actress Mira Sorvino- who is also a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Office of Drugs and Crime- was wearing killer heels during the CGI press conference on human trafficking. And maybe Jessica Alba’s hair was a little orange. Does it really matter? To the people involved with CGI who make a measurable difference, I don’t think this made a difference at all.
What do you think about Clinton Global Initiative- paparazzi party or charitable champion? What CGI sessions or issues captured your attention? Do you think the Initiative matters? Feel free to comment!