Bill Clinton's fourth annual, star-studded philanthropy and cause advocacy think fest — the Clinton Global Initiative — concluded last week in Manhattan rife with references to global climate change, the U.S. financial meltdown, and the critical nature of the upcoming presidential elections on the ability of America to restore some of its luster to the world.
Bono trounced the failure of the developing world to meet Millennium Goals thus far. He blasted the Wall Street bailout, saying: "It's extraordinary to me that you can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G-8 can't find $25 billion to save the 25,000 children who die from preventable diseases and hunger." Flanked on an opening session stage by Al Gore, Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Princess Rania of Jordan, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, Bono said: "Bankruptcy is bad enough but this is moral bankruptcy." The lead singer for U2 and co-founder of Product RED called on the next U.S. president, "whoever that may be" to lead a global effort to ease global challenges around climate change, poverty, and other social ills. This, he said, would "help America to redescribe itself to the rest of the world."
Former Vice President Al Gore urged young people to engage in "civil disobedience" to stop the construction of old-style, coal-powered energy plants. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental crusader said that "the world has lost ground to the climate crisis." Since last year's CGI, he said, there has been no improvement in the world's ability to fight climate change. "This is a rout," he said. "We're losing badly." He added: "If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration." He also said it is time for people to stop "buying the lie, the notion" that burning coal is still an acceptable energy alternative. "Clean coal, like healthy cigarettes, doesn't exist," he said. Gore also called for an alliance between environmental activists and anti-poverty groups to provide green energy sources to people in developing countries and impoverished urban environments around the U.S.
Former President Bill Clinton, speaking to a small group of bloggers, said he thinks there is, at least, "a 50 percent chance" that people will give more to those in need during the evolving U.S. financial crisis. He said the financial crisis in the U.S. "will make the work of putting philanthropists and organizations together more significant over the next couple of years."
Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin called the financial crisis "a really extraordinary situation — by far the most extraordinary that the capital markets have faced since the 1930s. The 1930s situation was multiples worse than this," he added, "but this is an extraordinary situation." Rubin, currently the director and chairman of the executive committee of Citigroup, said the first priority for the country is to "deal with the crisis of confidence that we're facing" and work quickly to pass legislation now before Congress. "There are no guarantees in life, but what is being proposed could help significantly, and if it's not passed, it will exacerbate [the crisis]."
Former President George H. W. Bush made a surprise appearance to talk about the need for Americans to join him and Clinton to raise money for those displaced by natural disasters in the American South. "People are without homes and without jobs as a result of forces beyond their control," Bush said. "Just as we Americans gave to the victims of the tsunami four years ago, we must give to those in the Gulf suffering from sudden displacement."
Bill Gates, in a one-on-one conversation with Bill Clinton, said that amid the financial crisis and economic slowdown, "we have to show [the wealthy] that [philanthropy] is fun, that it has impact, that there are great success stories." When asked what advice he'd give to wealthy philanthropists now taking a beating on the value of their investments, Gates said: "I think there are a lot of rich people. The percentage [of their wealth] that is being given to these great causes and inequity relative to that wealth is very small, and so a fairly modest increase in the amount [of giving] going [to philanthropy] can certainly offset the gyrations in terms of stock market valuation." Gates called on assembled philanthropists and nonprofits to "get more creative" with using the Internet to engage more people around giving. "No matter what the scale of giving, we have to be more connected," he said. "The Internet is our friend."
The nonprofit group, CGAP, which is researching and developing mobile banking services for the so-called bottom-of-the-pyramid customers in developing countries, announced it would spend $10 million to find business models that could provide mobile banking services to 25 million people in 20 countries. "We're launching a mobile banking call to action here, and we hope it will help us reach millions of poor people who, until now, have been left out of the formal financial system," said CGAP CEO Elizabeth Littlefield. "The brick-and-mortar bank branch system can only go so far." She said that with cell phone service and a local shop handling the cash, "mobile banking can reach every village and barrio in the developing world." Target countries include: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, DR Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, India, Kenya, Maldives, Mexico, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
John McCain defended his decision to put his presidential campaign on hold and his request for a delay of the first presidential debate, telling CGI attendees he wanted to stay in Washington awhile to work closely with fellow lawmakers to make sure the bailout is void of special favors to both Wall Street leaders "who got us into this mess" and any "backroom deals." He said: "...Mistakes made now could have catastrophic consequences for this country's future." Then, in a nod to running mate Sarah Palin, who sat with Cindy McCain in the audience, McCain added to sparse applause: "I'd rather build a bridge to nowhere—and put it square in the middle of Sedona, Arizona—than take money from teachers and farmers and small business owners to line the pockets of the Wall Street crowd that got us here in the first place."
McCain further sought to explain his mid-week move to temporarily halt his campaign by saying: "History must not record that when our nation faced such a moment, its leadership was unable to put aside politics and focus in a unified way to solve the problems of our country. It is time for everyone to recall that the political process is not an end in itself, nor is it intended to serve those of us who are in the middle of it. In the Senate of the United States, our duty is to serve the people of this country and we can serve them best now by putting politics aside and dealing in a focused, straightforward, bipartisan way with the problem at hand."
Barack Obama, about a half-hour later, addressed conferees via satellite, firmly reiterating his decision "to be in Oxford, Miss. Friday night" for the first debate. "The American people are in a financial crisis and they are fighting two wars abroad. [They] deserve to hear directly from myself and from John McCain about how we both intend to address the future. It's too serious of a time to put our campaigns on hold. We must address directly the full range of issues that the next president will face" in an open debate before the public.
Obama then named energy the top issue facing all world leaders: "Our dependence on oil funds terror and tyranny and puts the future of our planet in peril," Obama said. "[Energy] is the moral challenge of our time. The time to debate climate change is past. It's time for America to lead. He also said that if elected, he would make four specific commitments on the four issues that CGI has emphasized: climate change, poverty, education, and health. "Climate change. Poverty. Extremism. Disease. These problems offend our common humanity. They also threaten our common security. You know this. The question is what do we do about it?"
Wyclef Jean and his three-year-old NGO, YeleHaiti.org, urged assembled philanthropists to urgently consider thousands of Haitians displaced by the Aug. 26, category 4 hurricane that slammed into the coastal cities of his native Haiti. "Remember Katrina?" he said. "The hurricane that hit Haiti was Katrina times a million." In the coastal city of Gonaives, Jean said: "The whole city smells like dead bodies; kids are still on rooftops; people haven't eaten for 12 days." He said 55 schools were destroyed, with 593 damaged and in need of rebuilding. "I remember being so poor, I ate dirt from the ground," Jean told reporters at a press conference. "We have hunger in Haiti all the time; after Gustav, people are starving faster."
Philanthropist Eli Broad announced a new $44 million, three-year research and development initiative called EdLabs, which will team up with three of the largest urban school systems in the country: New York, Chicago, and the District of Columbia. EdLab will be housed at Harvard and work to identify and advance strategies to improve student achievement in America' s troubled public schools. "The military had DARPA; this will be the educational equivalent," said Broad, who is contributing $6 million to the venture. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said: "Everybody talks about reform but it's really the same tired bromide, like applying a tongue to a sore tooth.... It's time for innovation."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was headed down to Washington Friday afternoon to help advise U.S. leaders on the financial crisis, urged CGI attendees to back global efforts to re-build the world's financial system. "We need an early warning system for the world's economic systems so as to restore confidence in the markets," he said. In addition, Brown said the World Bank should transform itself into an institution that leads environmental reforms around the world, and the United Nations should start focusing on new ways to deal with governments and nations in the throes of economic decline. And, he said, institutions everywhere must find new ways to use information technology to help advance their initiatives and better serve those in need. "We all need to innovate for global perspective," he said.
Rene Preval, president of of Haiti, issued a moving and eloquent appeal for fast help to rebuild his flooded nation, ravaged in late August by Hurricane Gustav. "It's sad to say that if there are no dead bodies on the [TV/computer] screen, public opinion becomes disinterested very quickly. Important work remains to be done." He said the nation's infrastructure needs to be completely rebuilt — but not, he said, so it resembles what it was before. "We need to build back better," he said, to accommodate what is certain to be more hurricane activity in the years ahead due to global warming. "More than 90 percent of the crops in Haiti have disappeared in this recent string of hurricanes," Preval told a panel on poverty, "and in six months, we will not have any food to give to the population. The United Nations sent $107 million but this money was already used up a month ago. We are very worried, so I am appealing not only to the international community but to the private sector to help Haiti see to its needs for the next six months." Fellow CGI attendees Matt Damon and Frank McKenna of ONEXONE.org; Wyclef Jean of Yele Haiti, and past CGI attendees Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt announced aid to Haiti during the conference. More, though, is needed, said Clinton — and quickly.
In all, this year's CGI reaped 250 new commitments for helping those less fortunate, valued at a total of $8 billion and targeted to help a total of 158 million people around the world. "There is a misperception of assets and opportunities in the world and a misalignment of how we invest our time and money in the kind of future we all say we want," Clinton said in closing the conference. "We need to close the gaps between what we feel and what we see, and between what we say and what we do." Clinton announced he will hold his first CGI-Asia meeting in Hong Kong on December 2-3 and will host a youth version of it at the University of Texas at Austin in February.