“Is Clinton’s CGI the New UN?” The Daily Beast, 20 September 2010.
Crosstown from the sonorous U.N. general assembly, the former president’s Global Initiative could one day eclipse the older institution.
The United Nations General Assembly kicks off today, bringing together leaders of 192 countries. But just west of it, a competing summit will bring together thought-leaders from across the globe to tackle many of the same problems that are on the table at Turtle Bay. And even President Obama will make an appearance.
The Clinton Global Initiative, now in its sixth year, will feature Nobel laureates, CEOs, presidents, and a trio of first ladies—making it seem like a 21st century initiative that could ultimately eclipse the older institution. CGI is fast building a track record that has some wondering if its leaner model may be the better way to address the multitude of problems facing the global community.
All it needs is a standing army.
“Most U.N. organizations concern themselves with setting global policy,” says Paul Farmer, the celebrated activist and director of Partners in Health who has been involved with CGI since its inception. “But what happens at CGI is the nitty-gritty of deal-making between philanthropists and the people who get it done.”
The U.N. may have the advantages of age (it’s almost 65 years old,) a charter, a 120,000-member army, a $4.2 billion budget (excluding peace-keeping operations,) a secretariat with about 40,000 employees, and stylishly appointed headquarters with to-die-for river views. But it is also littered with problems, both real and perceived.
Last year’s U.N. summit on climate change in Copenhagen devolved into a chaotic standoff between developing countries and wealthy nations—producing a nonbinding document that many climate experts described as more than disappointing. Likewise, the U.N. shoulders some of the world’s largest responsibilities for treating HIV/AIDS, but took years to embrace best practices on prevention.
This year’s general assembly focuses on the Millennium Development Goals, the organization’s ambitious blueprint on how to fight poverty, poor health and poor education—and has once again opened the organization to the criticism that there’s too much talking, not enough doing. Even U.N. officials acknowledge that the goals are off track and behind schedule, and that the official document to be presented at the MDG summit represents a watered-down version of important commitments, with the wealthier G8 countries offering less financial assistance than antipoverty advocates would like.
“There’s a lot of worthy language in this document about promoting development in poor countries,” says Emma Seery, a spokesperson for hunger relief organization Oxfam, “But embarrassingly little on what actions leaders will take to actually achieve the millennium development goals.”
By contrast, the CGI requires every delegate to make a commitment to take action—leading to windfalls like Richard Branson’s 2006 pledge of $3 billion for adaptation to the threat of climate change. CGI wants to bring together leaders from government, civil society and big business—from all parts of the political spectrum. And rather than formal diplomatic dialogue, the CGI conversations are driven by sometimes-odd pairings.
This year, Actor Ashton Kutcher will talk Twitter with Sudanese telecom mogul Mohammed Ibrahim; World Bank Managing Director and former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Iweala will talk entrepreneurship with former White House green jobs czar Van Jones, and a swarm of “ex-everybodies” will bring to bear lessons from inside and outside of government.
“I came in a skeptic—how does this work exactly?” says Farmer, adding that to watch Bill Clinton and his Initiative in action changed his mind. “The biggest post-earthquake project to be launched is the hospital we’re launching in central Haiti,” he says, “and the first donation that ever came through was from sitting in a chair next to someone at CGI.”
“One of the key features of CGI is the notion that the problems facing us are too big for any piece of the economy or any single organization to take on,” says Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and an energy expert who has helped to coordinate Clinton’s initiative since the beginning. “There’s the ability to bring together a really complex set of conversations between people who otherwise wouldn’t be talking.”
At CGI, the magic “happens in the hallways,” says Hendricks. He points to a 2005 encounter between Brad Pitt, Steven Bing and architect Bill McDonough. Just a month after Hurricane Katrina, the three men joined a CGI panel that ended up launching Pitt’s “Make it Right” initiative in New Orleans –a program that has made the city’s Lower Ninth Ward one of the largest concentrations of green buildings in the country.
Similarly, a 2008 CGI conversation led Newark Mayor Corey Booker to begin a project of green urban renewal that “wouldn’t have happened without CGI,” says Hendricks. “Booker wouldn’t have had access to this network of global thought leaders.”
Some of the U.N.’s trouble stems from its many cooks. The 192 member states can only agree on the most obvious of policy proposals—say, primary education for all. What’s more, the recession has rocked its budget, making it difficult to achieve the goals set out years before. But the more fundamental problem, in the U.S. at least, is not money but rather what can best be described as an “enthusiasm gap.”
Fueled by attention to its humanitarian efforts in Haiti and Chile, the U.N.’s approval ratings are actually up to 60 percent. But when Anita Sharma, a representative for the U.N. Millennium Campaign, visited a congressman on Capitol Hill recently, the representative asked this about the MDG: “Isn’t that a beer?” (He was thinking of MGD—Miller Genuine Draft.)
“The U.N. has so many agencies,” says Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist who has worked closely with the U.N. on the goals, and has advocated that focused initiatives like the Global Fund be used to avoid the worst of the U.N. bureaucracy. Still, Sachs does not believe that private organizations can save the world: “To pretend it can be done by business or less is to leave people to die.”
Certainly the U.N. General Assembly, “can use its legitimacy to create political momentum around big causes and, in so doing, help to lever cash from governments,” says Michael Green, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism. But CGI “is much more practical and action-oriented than the U.N.,” he adds. “The real opportunity is building an effective partnership between the two.”
CGI also works with the U.N. at times—particularly on women’s issues, where partnership with UNICEF, the UN Population Fund and UNAIDS has been fruitful. But in the end the UN is “a bunch of academic, nerdy policy people,” says Farmer. “And I say that as an academic nerdy policy person.”
The U.N.’s strengths remain standard-setting, and creating favorable policy environments to fight poverty and other global problems. But its waning influence may be the natural feature of globalization: “The diffusion into more accessible and actionable activities is a growing element of a much more decentralized world,” says John MacArthur of the U.N.’s Millennium Promise campaign. The entire U.N. week, he says, produces “a community of communities working on pieces of the goals.”
“Every September has been an extraordinary experience in terms of coming together with very out-of-the box thinkers, people who are not afraid to innovate and move forward,” says Molly Melching, director of Tostan, an NGO in Senegal that works with both UNICEF and CGI. “President Clinton took what other people were saying—that businesses are bad and doing horrible things and said, ‘Let’s look at them as being potential do-gooders.’… That attitude has really changed social norms for big business; they feel that it’s a responsibility to get involved in world affairs.”