Tuesday, September 21, 2010


This week, for the sixth year in a row, the Sheraton hotel in midtown Manhattan has been transformed into schmooze central for more than 1,300 heads of state, 600 business leaders, and 500 NGO leaders from 90 countries on six continents. The invitation-only crowd is attending Bill Clinton's annual three-day Clinton Global Initiative to pledge their time, money and vast social networks to commit global problem-solving. But this year, the mood of the delegates is far less competitive: there are far fewer vanity causes, far fewer self-congratulatory press conferences; less pitching of the resident press for an easy story.

Sure, there are the usual numbers of Hollywood celebrities and big-name philanthropists air-kissing each other near the elevators. [Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher are here and so is Jim Carrey.] But it's almost as if everyone got a memo asking them to keep the big vision talk to a minimum, skip the grandstanding, and collaborate with each other to bridge the gap between all the talk about change and real impact. [The irony isn't lost on those who recall Clinton's famous political mantra -- "it's the economy, stupid" -- from his days in the White House. For Clinton, it is still all about the economy, stupid. Invest in the cause of women and girls? Sure -- because it's a cost-effective way to create jobs and fight poverty.]

To be sure, CGI in its sixth year is no longer a former President's bid to stay relevant. It has grown into a potent new force in today's Web-driven world of collaborative advocacy -- aggregating the leaders of many traditional charities and governments and philanthropies to up the ante on social change; to do together what each institution can no longer do so well on its own. "The world is so interdependent that the struggle of the 21 century will be a complicated, ongoing blizzard of conflicts between the positive and negative forces of interdependency," Clinton told conferees in opening remarks. "The limits to what the private sector can produce and what government can provide are everywhere so evident, that all of us are going to need to do much more to fill the gaps. We must all start to figure out how to do everything [including philanthropy] less expensively and better."

It's a tall order. But attendees are required to pledge money and create specific projects that will result in measured improvements for those in need. Delegates who fail to make progress on their projects from one year to the next are not invited back. "I hope when we come out of this meeting later this week," Clinton told delegates, "that every one of you will have a clearer idea about how you can best use your resources in this climate to promote more economic growth in all the countries represented here." Translated? Only results matter here.

Among highlights so far:

* A sequel to the award-winning, 2008 cause video, The Girl Effect, had its world premiere on CGI's main stage. Called The Girl Effect: The Clock is Ticking, the animated video focuses on the impact of intervention in the life of a girl at age 12. The original video -- which won awards for impact -- makes the point that improving the lives of women and girls can boost the quality of life on the planet. To view the just-released sequel, click here.

* A panel moderated by The Daily Beast Founder Tina Brown shared highly descriptive reports from the Congo and flood-ravaged Pakistan of new threats to the public safety of women and girls that panelists said is impeding economic progress and recovery in those regions. ActressAshley Judd, on the board of Population Services International, said that in the Congo, there is virtually no family planning, with some 9 million unintended pregnancies per year. A large majority of those pregnancies, Judd said, are the result of gang rapes by armed militia amid civil strife in the region. Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama Administration, said that "if you want to fix the problem of women in these areas you have to address the men." Failure to do so, he said, "is the single biggest failure of all of our programs. If you don't sit down with the men and hammer them, you are not going to get anywhere." Brown added the following comment:
"It's very easy to look around and to start to kid ourselves that there's some kind of great tipping point going on about a global focus on the affairs of women. Yes, thanks to CGI, there is an increased global focus and an intensity building. But we are so far from where we need to be and what we need to be doing. More women were killed in the last century just for being women than all the men killed in the wars of the 20th century. At this moment, a woman is being raped fetching water, a girl is being forced into prostitution, a husband is beating his wife, a girl is being denied an education, and I won't even go into the honor killings and the medieval horror show that is raging (in the Middle East) and is still going on."

* Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Pakistan in the Obama Administration, said the recent flooding in that country now covers an area the size of Italy and has put a "staggering issue into our hands as humanitarians." As the water starts to recede and flows out to the Indian Ocean, Holbrooke told an afternoon panel, "families will start to race back to their homes, except that there are no homes left, schools have been washed away, roads are gone, every bridge is out and $1 billion in aid has already been spent. So what's going to happen is that kids are going to start drinking stagnant water, they will get dysentery, and cholera will spread and everything we in this room are trying to do for women and girls is going to face an explosion of new problems. Our first issue now in Pakistan is humanitarian. Women and children have to go home, (away from the camps, which are dangerous). We've got to focus first on rescue, recovery and preventing the spread of disease."

* Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt, when asked by Bill Clinton what "the tech revolution can do for poor people," said the distribution and widespread use of mobile phones can "make the world one." Schmidt added, as follows:
"If I were to have to build a country or help one that is recovering from a war, I'd start with empowering citizens with (mobile) devices. They can be sourced globally, and all you have to do is put up towers and make them work. Once you do, suddenly, every one has access to the world's information and you can begin to have small business and start to participate in global conversations. Further, where people once were being fed the wrong information by local charlatans, they can now get another viewpoint. Over and over again this development of mobile devices is the single most important thing the tech sector has done because it allows the world to be one. This is technology that everyone will have and that everyone can access."

* Bill Clinton said his conference is partly focused on women because they're not considered equal to men in many parts of the world. Clinton then gave a small, impromptu speech to conferees on the plight of women and girls, as follows:
"...A widespread belief exists in many cultures that women are property. (Consider) the rise of sexual violence (against women) in the camps in Haiti. I know many people don't think (that violence) is much higher than it was on the streets of Port au Prince before the earthquake. But is a lot of this (violence occuring) just because of physical weakness or is there a widespread belief deep down inside in many cultures that men should have more significance in society than women? We haven't talked about that. We always talk about fixes and policies, and I like that (as we) can't plumb the depths of the human psyche here. But it's worth your thinking about it.
Why, in 2010, do we even have to have these sessions (at CGI) on women and girls? Why? I'll never forget when Hillary and I were in Africa one time and Hillary dragged me into this beautiful hotel to meet with these women who had come in from the country to talk about female genital mutilation (with) the small, hearty cadre of men who were there to support them. (I remember thinking how) these guys were really at risk of being ridiculed back home for standing up for what today seems like the most normal thing in the world.
I'm just saying all of this because I think there is something that we all can do about (women's empowerment) and I think we forget this at our peril. There is still a whole set of complicated assumptions that rifle throughout the world. We have the crown prince here from Bahrain and one of the best things he's done to help women and girls is not directly related to women and girls. He established a commission to make economic policy for his country that was half government, half private sector, where women were fully represented. He didn't have to say anything about women and girls. People saw the picture. (applause)
...There are still a lot of places in this world where women are part human and part property and where men define their meaning in life partly by their intrinsic merit and partly by their ability, no matter what else is going on in their lives, to control somebody else. And I think all of us can speak about that and challenge people to think about what is truly going on in their minds and hearts to make this (something that is) still a problem in the world -- and that requires us to come here and have a separate section (of discussion) on it. (applause)"

* Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, announced a new philanthropic venture, Enterprise Zimbabwe, to connect philanthropists and commercial investors with "safe" business and social development opportunities in the African nation. Zimbabwe has struggled to attract foreign aid and investment because of President Robert Mugabe's policies, and talks to improve Zimbabwe's ties with the European Union have stalled over slow political reforms in Harare. "Zimbabwe is a magnificent country that has had a really rough few years," Branson told a breakout session on investment at the conference. He urged his fellow philanthropists to "get off the sidelines and invest" in Zimbabwe, because "either the world can continue to wait and see and not invest in it, or the world can help Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the coalition government get Zimbabwe back on its feet." Branson added: "Zimbabwe, of all the African countries, has got the best chance of getting back ... it just needs a bit of help being kick-started." The idea behind Enterprise Zimbabwe, Branson says, is to create "a sort of safe haven for people to invest through." Enterprise Zimbabwe is a project of Branson's Virgin Unite, the philanthropy arm of his Virgin business empire; Humanity United (run by Pam Omidyar, wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar), and The Nduna Foundation.

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a new public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation to provide women around the world with clean, efficient and affordable stoves. "People have cooked over open fires and dirty stoves for all of human history but the simple fact is, they are slowly killing millions of people and polluting the environment," Clinton said, announcing the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. About half the world's population relies on indoor fires and inefficient cookstoves to prepare daily meals, she said, and it causes health problems, as well as forces many women to walk for hours to find cooking fuel -- time that could be spent on education or self-employment. "The food they cook is different on every continent, but the air they breathe is shockingly similar: a toxic mix of chemicals released by burning wood or other solid fuel that can reach 200 times the amount that our EPA considers safe for breathing," Clinton added. "The World Health Organization considers smoke from dirty stoves to be one of the five most serious health risks in poor, developing countries. Nearly 2 million people die from its effects each year, more than twice the number from malaria." The goal of the Alliance is for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. The group will work in cooperation with other leading non-profits, foundations, academic institutions and corporate leaders and governments to spur production, distribution and use of clean cookstoves in the developing world.

CGI continues through Friday with further sessions on social enteprise and social investment. Watch this space for updates.

--Marcia Stepanek

(Photo, above, by M&H Sheppard for istock.com)

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