by Anh-Thu Nguyen
It’s United Nations Week in New York, and as hundreds of world leaders and their entourages descend upon the U.N. to do face time and/or grandstand before the General Assembly, a mini-ecosystem of conferences and summits materialize, drawing, and vying for the attention of everyone in the international humanitarian sphere. Of these, the biggest fish by far is the conference founded and emceed by former president Bill Clinton.
The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting is a star-studded, members-only summit, where attendees pony up $20,000 a piece in order to hear the big questions relating to poverty and international development disseminated by and before an audience of billionaires, Hollywood celebrities, CEOs of multinational corporations, NGO heads, and former and current political leaders. This year, the galaxy of superstars rubbing shoulders include the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim; actor Morgan Freeman; former Chilean president and current head of UN Women Michele Bachelet; the presidents and CEOs of Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever; both the 42nd and 44th presidents of the United States; and completed, of course, with a performance by Sting—the go-to activist singer when Bono isn’t around.
Underneath the glitz and glamor, the conference rings hollow as the Who’s Who crowd ignore the hard questions and brush off past failures. CGI has the feel of a giant group hug, with panels of participants constantly and consistently congratulating each other on the good work that they’re doing and getting righteously outraged about things everyone in the room agrees they should be outraged about.
It’s a conference of strange bedfellows— the CEO of Pepsi-Co can sit side-by-side with food rights activists, talking amiably and earnestly about what it takes to solve the problems of malnutrition. It’s very much a Clinton institution—an internationalized version of the Democratic Leadership Council Third Way that infuriated progressives during and well after the Clinton administration, but is also looked back upon with nostalgia because of the relentless optimism underpinning it.
CGI’s ethos is driven by a sense of ‘can’t we all just get along’-ness built on consensus-building across public and private sectors, and an enormous faith in the power of the market to make things okay, even if the past few years have given cause for doubt for whether market forces can actually solve problems, or if any of us can actually get along.
Make no mistake, this philosophy results in some substantial commitments to action—the linchpin of CGI—as the public-private relationships, monetary and programmatic pledges made every year by corporations and non-profit organizations can attest to. This year, substantial social commitments have been made by everyone from Coca-Cola to Save the Children to the AFL-CIO around the meeting’s three key themes: empowering women and girls, creating jobs, and facilitating sustainable consumption.
However, for all of the commitments to action, there seems to be a dearth of self-examination or criticism of what has or hasn’t worked, which only adds to the Kool-Aid drinking atmosphere of CGI. For example, at a panel on design and innovation, an activist lauded the merits of a soccer ball that acts as a portable generator, and spoke about her dream of designing products meant to both be “fun” and “make a difference.” That phrasing made me consider a failed example of that marriage—the Playpump—which had sought to harness design and the power of play to pump water, but in practice was horribly inefficient, expensive to install compared to similar (and better functioning) water pumps, and far too complex for local maintenance.
Sure the optimism was there and the ideas sounded both extremely marketable and novel, and part of a real effort to do good, but the last time design tried to save the world—sometime in the mid-twentieth century—we ended up with lonely concrete slums and the Mordor-ification of megacities like New York.
These are the hard questions and criticisms that no one’s really asking at a generally upbeat forum like CGI—that is, whether all the money that’s being thrown around and the commitments being made really go to solving problems at their root, or if it’s just more of the same self-aggrandizing marketing ploys for corporate social responsibility arms and professional do-gooders trying to secure regular paid gigs on the speaking engagement circuit.
That said, there have been definite highlights to CGI, such as Obama’s remarks on rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, and most notably when Aung San Suu Kyi gave her first interview since being released from house arrest by videoconference with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and moderator Charlie Rose on stage. It was a fantastic, once-in-a lifetime moment that brought about several standing ovations and a lot of tears, as two major humanitarian leaders who have sacrificed much of their lives for democracy, equality, and open societies came together using computers and a broadband connection.
Their seeming humility and good humor acted as a subtle challenge to the high net worth and high powered individuals who talk a big game about doing good while still doing (extremely) well. Suu Kyi spoke of the “unknown soldiers” of the Burmese democracy movement who she acknowledged had sacrificed much, with greater risk than her due to their anonymity, as opposed to the protection she has as a public figure, and the ever-quotable Archbishop Tutu commented that anyone who stood out from the crowd only did so by being lifted on the shoulders of others.
It’s a bit of a cliché—having what we consider living saints to provide gentle teachable moments during a top-level revival-style meeting of the global elite, but it did the job. For a moment the crowd was transformed from a group of self-satisfied overachievers to awestruck fanboys and fangirls, reminded maybe perhaps for a hot second that doing the right thing is still a long, hard, and often thankless task. That’s the real path to paradigm-shifting change.
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia]
Anh-Thu Nguyen is a lawyer focusing on security, transitional justice, and international development, and founder of Ahkun, a social enterprise connecting micro-entrepreneurs to the global marketplace.