President Barack Obama, less than an hour after delivering a stirring defense of free speech and democracy at the United Nations, told CGI delegates today that he has signed a new Executive Order to boost protections against human trafficking in federal contracts, to help eradicate what he called "modern slavery"in the United States and around the world.
"[Human trafficking] is a debasement of our common humanity," Obama told delegates attending the third and final day of Bill Clinton's annual Clinton Global Initiative conference of global changemakers. "...Now, I do not use that word, slavery, lightly. It evokes, obviously, one of the most painful chapters in our nation's history."
"But around the world," Obama continued, "when a man desperate for work finds himself in a factory, or on a fishing boat or in a field, working and toiling for little or no pay and beaten if he tries to escape, that is slavery. When a woman is locked in sweatshop or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving, that is slavery. When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier and forced to kill or be killed, that is slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family, runs away from home or is lured by the false promise of a better life — and then is imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists — that is slavery. It is barbaric and it is evil and it has no place in a civilized world."
Obama evoked the stories of three women who were victims of human trafficking, including one from the DR Congo and one from Indonesia who had come to CGI to share their stories with delegates. "In the darkest hours of your lives, you may have felt utterly alone," Obama said, addressing them and other victims around the world. "It may seem in those moments like nobody cares but ... we see you. We hear you. We insist on your dignity."
Less than three hours earlier, GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney took the CGI stage, and took aim at the U.S. aid system in remarks also made yesterday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Romney lauded the "power of free enterprise" and urged more public-private aid ventures in the developing world, just as Clinton had.
But Romney also used his CGI speech to take aim at Obama, suggesting that he is not adequately handling the tensions in the Middle East. "A lot of Americans feel that America has found itself at the mercy of events rather than shaping events," Romney said. He listed four examples, saying: "Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. Iran is moving toward nuclear-weapons capability."
[For more of Romney, see the video of his remarks here. For the video of Obama's speech on human trafficking, see video, below.]
Among other Day 3 highlights:
* The Elders, the Ford Foundation, the NoVo Foundation and Nike — some of the same people behind the successful Girl Effect campaigns of 2008 and 2010 to promote the advancement and protection of women and girls around the world — committed to jointly establish a new initiative called Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage. The four organizations committed $3 million to establish a secretariat to identify activities to end child marriage in priority countries and to set up a network of donors to support programs to end child marriage worldwide.
* Mohamed Morsi, in his first U.S. appearance since his June election as Egypt's first democratically elected president following last year's demonstrations in Tahrir Square, said Egypt and the Middle East are "at a critical juncture." He called Egyptians "the ultimate gurantors" of his country's transition to democracy but declared that "we will also turn to our friends and partners beyond our borders." Morsi directly addressed recent violent demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere that are widely blamed on a U.S-made film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. Morsi today suggested that unfettered freedom of expression was at fault. "Freedom of expression comes with responsibilities, especially when it comes with serious implications for peace," he said. Morsi also warned Western nations against seeking to dominate his region. "The world is not one culture," Morsi said. A former head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi told CGI delegates that "we must live together rather than than seek to dominate each other. The people of the world cannot accept domination (from the West) anymore."
* In an interview with TV host Charlie Rose, outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said today's bitter political climate in America is standing squarely in the way of faster economic growth. "If you allow what is politcally comfortable to stand in the way of what is necessary for the economy," he said, "that is what leaves countries weak and burning." Geithner predicted economic growth would rise to 2 percent or higher in the coming year but said "it is still a very tough economy and the challenges ahead are very daunting. When the United States does best, it is because leaders put politics aside and find the responsibility to govern." See the full video of that interview, below:
* Puma CEO Jochan Zeitz and Cornell University Law School Professor Lynn Stout talked about what's keeping social good off the radar of many corporations. Zeitz described launching his sportswear company's controversial "environmental profit and loss account" last year, which attempts to put a cost on the impact the business is having on the environment, across its entire supply chain. Zeitz said his hope was to acknowledge that "a new business paradigm is needed, and that the current economic model, which originated in the Industrial Revolution some 100 years ago, must be radically changed." Zeitz told CGI delegates that "if every business monetizes its actual impacts on the environment, they can design new ways of sourcing materials and running their supply chains to alleviate that impact" rather than simply guess "and get it wrong" for the company and the communities they serve. Stout, the author of The Shareholder Value Myth, said public companies also need to stop focusing so hard on maximizing shareholder value. Overemphasizing shareholders leads to a focus on short-term earnings, she says, discouraging investment and social innovation. "We have corporations capable of doing enormous amounts of public good," she said, "but the biggest obstacle these companies face is the myth that a corporation is run well when it is run to maximize stock price." First, this is not what the law requires, she said, and secondly, focusing on shareholder value "is not working out well, not for employees, not for companies, and not for investors, either." Stout said returns to investors who have ownership in public companies have declined significantly in the last 30 years. Further, she said, "public corporations are disappearing. There were 8,823 public corporations in 1997 but by 2008, that number had declined to 5,418. If this were a species of animal and we saw the population decline by 40 percent, we would say it is in danger." But focusing on new community and environmental goals, such as sustainability, won't come "for free," Zeitz cautioned. "We can't just walk around and say sustainability will be great for business. You've got to invest in it. I'm not sure a lot of companies are ready for that yet."
* Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told interviewer Charlie Rose that "certain things that were unclear and unresolved in the 20th century now are clear. Government is necessary but it is better at empowering and setting strategic frameworks than doing everything itself." He added: "Civic society, including NGOs, have a creativity and dynamism that can hugely augment the actions of government. And the private sector now understands it can't just be in places without some sense of responsibility to community. So the 21st century is very much about partnership, and the boundaries between government, civic society, and business should be broken down as far as possible."
* CGI closed with over 150 new commitments made by delegates to projects aimed at making the world a better place, valued at more than $2 billion and expected to impact 22 million people. Since the start of CGI in 2005, members have made nearly 2,300 commitments to improve the lives of more than 400 million people in more than 180 countries.
-- Marcia Stepanek
[Illustration, top, by Brooklyn illustrator Sophie Blackall, from her Congo series for the Measles and Rubella Initiative, featured at this week's Social Good Summit 2012. Photos courtesy CGI.]