by Themrise Khan
President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton at CGI 2011. CREDIT: CGI/Paul Morse
(HN, September 26, 2011) - It was three days of self-praise, self-glorification and self-affirmation. The outlying message at the end was, “we are good people doing good for others, but we need more money to do it”.
This was the seventh annual Clinton Global Initiative, aka CGI, in New York - a collection of many men in suits and some women in heels. A globally respected event, which has also recognized Pakistani social entrepreneurs in the past, the theme of this years gathering was, “The World at Seven Billion”.
It was an astonishingly busy week in New York, with the CGI sharing limited Manhattan space with the opening of the UN General Assembly, where Palestinian statehood took a rude beating, as expected. Mid-town Manhattan was in lock-down and gridlock as heads of state moved between one glorified political event to another, followed by a slew of black SUV’s containing a frightening number of some very mean looking people. For five days, the apocalypse had come to visit New York City. Manhattan looked like a showroom for GMC Suburban SUVs.
And an apocalypse of sorts it was, as political royalty rubbed shoulders with aristocratic royalty. There were strategically placed Saudi princes and princesses, talking about ending violence against women and global poverty. The Arab presence was not complete without a fleeting appearance by the stately Queen Rania of Jordan, at the special session on Change in the Middle-East and North Africa.
One of the highlights of the forum this year, was Burma’s very own Aung San Suu Kyi speaking live via satellite from Rangoon, to a completely smitten Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. We suspect Clinton must have pulled some strings to convince the Burmese generals to allow Suu Kyi to go live on air.
President Barack Obama dropped by as well, to embrace his dear friend President Bill Clinton on stage, while subtly trying to woe the uber-rich audience towards his looming but not so booming election campaign. Speaking about America’s creaking infrastructure, including the ageing LaGuardia Airport in New York City, Obama said that the chief of the discount carrier, Southwest Airlines, told him that fuel bills could be cut drastically if only modern GPS were installed at US airports. “Maybe they will start serving peanuts on flights again.”.
There were also other presidents, former and current, prime ministers, ministers, corporate CEO’s, media moguls, New York’s rich and famous who realistically came to life off the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue, fashion statements, furs and all. However, it seemed that the hotel lobby and bar were the real action was though, as deals were made, partnerships discovered and just plain old people watching gave the likes of the mere mortals like myself, an adrenaline high.
But despite the heady attendance of global heavy weights, it was hard to put a finger on exactly what this year’s conference had set out to achieve. For one, the sessions had nothing to do with the title. It was supposedly an ode to improving the lives of women and girls in the developing world, as a laudable initiative on eliminating child-brides was launched. But there was also a hint of the prevention of non-communicable diseases, a smattering of climate change and food security and a very, very, heavy dose of the connection of corporate philanthropy as a solution to all of this and more.
Members of organizations working with the help of CGI funds, such as the Desert Research Foundation in Namibia, shared the stage with the CEOs of PepsiCo and Unilever, who strenuously explained how their companies were helping the impoverished with food security issues around the developing world. PepsiCo, for example, explained how it was sharing excess food products, such as high-protein chickpeas, with the World Food Programme (WFP).
In another session, the Dreamers for Tomorrow Association in Egypt, the poster-child nation of the Arab Spring, who laid bare their hope for peace in the Arab world, alongside a the diamond encrusted Princess Ameerah of the Al-Waleed Foundation and the CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, who are apparently the ones to watch out for where ‘doing good” is concerned.
Clinton himself, freshly trim from a non-meat diet, showed some very visible signs of a disconnect with his supposed “target audience”, was the most baffling outcome of this forum.
Case in point. In allowing young girls to access education and schools, what attempts can be a made to prevent their harassment and sexual molestation as they walk the long distances to schools in Africa. Clinton’s response; more law-enforcement along those paths and more street lights to that fewer girls are raped in the evening hours. A surprising declaration from a man who makes it his business to spend as much time as possible in the field.
It didn’t help that this year, the press (of which this scribe was a member), were kept sequestered in a basement with no access to any of the small group discussions or breakout sessions, save a few “by permission only” sessions. Frankly, one may as well have stayed home and watched it all on YouTube.
To me, CGI 2011 was a stark reminder to most of us from the marginalized world that we are still - and will be for many decades to come - mere pawns in the games of the rich and famous for greater wealth and power (CGI members and corporate participants pay up to US$20,000 to attend the event). The solutions to global poverty and security are mostly the result of political and corporate misgivings. As such, might the CGI is simply a way to absolve any pangs of guilt the well heeled in the western world may have about it?
The Clinton Global Initiative is an annual conference that brings together philanthropists and world leaders to inspire, connect and forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Since it was established in 2005, nearly 150 current and former heads of state, 18 Nobel Prize laureates, and hundreds of CEOs, heads of foundations, nonprofits and major philanthropists have made nearly 2,000 commitments impacting over 180 countries, the lives of over 300 million people, and commitments upwards of $60 billion.