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Live-Blogging Clinton: CGI’s Spring Confab

By Tom Watson on April 19, 2007No Comment

In a spectacular hall overlooking Central Park, the Clinton Global Initiative is giving its spring update on the unique partnerships it helps to create – the "commitments" that companies, organizations, foundations, and individuals make under former President Bill Clinton’s personal banner. We’re here in the hall this morning to cover the proceedings, which book-ends CGI’s annual three-day conference in New York each fall.

About 200 "members" – representatives of the commitment-making organizations – are here for a brief program in the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle.  A video highlighting the brief but star-studded history of CGI began the proceedings, with a range of taped remarks from people like Bill Gates and Bishop Desmond Tutu talking about commitments to change the world.

To date, CGI (launched in 2005) has generated more than 500 commitments in excess of $10 billion, benefiting more than 1,000 organizations in more than 100 countries.

Bill Clinton: "We believed that if we created a space where people from all over the world could come together, form partnerships, come up with solutions, and then come up with specific measures, we could impact a lot of lives….two and half years later it is, I believe, a working model that can change the world."

In addition to CGI’s other areas of focus (climate change, health, reconciliation/poverty alleviation), President Clinton said the initiative is adding education as a focus area.

Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons: The role of former President has changed and evolved; "and the 42nd President has taken that role to a whole other level…it’s like you come through this Vale of tears and emerge on the other side stronger and ready to lead." Parsons, a prominent Republican widely rumored to be considering a run for New York City Mayor, said President Clinton "is entirely motivated by doing what’s right." Parsons admitted to  be "prodded" by the former President to increase Time Warner’s support for philanthropic initiatives, particularly in education.

The President runs through some impressive numbers (I’ll get to these later when time allows) and notes that a third of the commitments affect three or more geographic regions. And he applauded growing U.S. attention to the genocide in Darfur; he said "oft-criticized Hollywood celebrities" have taken a major and serious role in bringing the slaughter to more attention. And there’s actor Kevin Spacey in the front row.

Clinton: "I’m grateful we ‘ve been able to convince people that no gift of time or financial commitment is too small … but there are still too many people dying" and too many big challenges. "The results are meaningful but we’ve still got a lot to do."

Updates on four commitments, with participants speaking from the audience as President Clinton listens intently from the stage (quite dramatic). First up in InterACTION Youth Exchange, a partnership between Interfaith Youth Core and Queen Rania of Jordan – a commitment to promote "religious peace-builders," according to Dr. Eboo Patel. This January, 15 young Americans traveled to Jordan to live and work with 17 young Jordanians. Two of the young participants spoke: Nabeel Ali, a Jordanian, and Adva Saldinger, an Israeli-born American, who spoke movingly of the personal medical treatment she received in a Jordanian home – "I want everyone to have the experience of having someone you once saw as an ‘other’ treat you as a daughter."

Jim Stengel from Procter & Gamble stood up to update CGI on his company’s commitment to provide 35 million liters of drinking water to more than a million African children; he held up a portable sachet filled with a powdered purification product that when dropped into a bucket of water makes it safe the drink. Stengel said: "We have reached 400,000 children and we will exceed our goal of a million children." In addition, CGI has helped P&G establish more partnerships to advance the clean water cause.

"People say I’ll never have the money of Bill Gates or even the millionaire down the street. I’ll never have the influence Bill Clinton has," said President Clinton. but he told the story of his grocer in Chappaqua, who has seven children and commutes daily from Brooklyn – "this guy loves what we do and wants to be involved." Clinton said CGI got an email from a woman who wrote, "I don’t have much money, but I’m going to buy as many packets as I can and give a bunch of kids clean water." It’s all about the partnerships that allow the average person to get involved.

The third update comes from Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of the Acumen Fund, which launched a clean air portfolio at last fall’s CGI meeting – she reported that the fund has made its first energy investment in rural electrification and has raised more investment dollars. Acumen is also looking at solar energy enterprises in India and more than 50 South Asian energy enterprises. The poor, said Novogratz, pay more for energy than their counterparts in developed nations – and also suffer greater impact from pollution.

The last update is the Ubuntu Education Fund, which works with orphaned and vulnerable children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The program was made possible by a commitment from Vincent Mai, chairman of AEA Investors. Mai, a native South African and naturalized American, talked about the thirst for live and learning among the orphans of Port Elizabeth – and the "high-impact" work of the Ubuntu workers in the townships. President Clinton personally welcomed Fezeka Mzalazala, a caseworker, and a student Ntombizethu "Zethu" Ngceza to the stage. Mzalazala recalled growing up during Apartheid, and said she fells lucky to be a senior caseworker and serve the families and children facing the high odds of poverty and HIV/AIDS. "I want to make a difference in my community," she said.

The 17-year-old sudent in her blue school uniform spoke brightly and enthusiastically about the Ubunto – translation: "I am, because you are" -  program, after recalling the deaths of her father and mother from AIDS. Now, she said, she wants to be come an accountant. She also promised her own commitment, CGI’s first commitment of 2007 – that she will start a support groupo for 10 HIV-positive girls. "This is how I will change the world."

Her brief talk stirred the audience, which gave her a standing ovation. Said Clinton: "I think you might reconsider being an accountant. You might be a politician…and I may move to South Africa so I can vote for you."

President Clinton closes: "For all the attention we get at CGI we’re really just a catalyst for bringing people together. It’s really a large experiment in philanthropy, in changing the model." He also revealed he’s working on a book on "why people give." That should make interesting reading in our sector.

UPDATE: Here are some of those statistics I promised earlier – basically a breakdown of the commitments made to CGI – 221 commitments have been made by non-profits (38%), 118 by corporations (21%), 108 by foundations (19%), 79 by individuals (13%) and the rest by governments, universities and other entitites.

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