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Former US President Bill Clinton’s global initiative conference wound up in New York on Friday with 215 commitments from companies, governments and non-profit groups totalling $7.3bn, nearly three times its inaugural 2005 level.

The pledges mostly concentrated on the four themes of the fight against global warming, disease, poverty and religious conflict. They varied from Rupert Murdoch and the singer Barbra Streisand jointly backing an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a planned future summit between African women to Sir Richard Branson’s $3bn promise over a decade to reinvest proceeds from his transport groups into alternative fuels.

Many of the 1,000 in attendance, including nearly 50 former and current international leaders or heads of state, were drawn from Mr Clinton’s circle of acquaintances from his White House years and his more recent activities through his Clinton Foundation.

The event tried to be bipartisan, but remained political. Laura Bush, US first lady, spoke on the first day, and Mr Clinton’s wife Hillary, a possible Democrat presidential contender, on the last.

Some have criticised the gathering for its glitzy “photo ops” with world leaders and telethon-style pledges backed by certificates signed by Mr Clinton, as well as a sense that many of the commitments made were repackaged, publicity-seeking or would have happened in any case.

Despite efforts to make this year’s pledges more original and measurable, many remained vague. But a number of participants argued that if this was what it took to recruit or sensitise even a few more powerful fence-sitting business groups to their cause, or push them into making commitments, it was a price worth paying.

“Cynics will say we are latterday Don Quixotes,” said Mr Clinton in his closing address. “But if you build me another windmill, I will tilt it.”

CGI’s intimate scale and public policy focus makes it arguably a more useful forum for networking, as long as it draws from beyond the circle of those already converted on the issues. Its increasing use of the internet to draw others into its “eBay of philanthropy” model could boost its potential in the future.

However, for all the policy discussions and individual initiatives, the Clinton Global Initiative has its limits. Speakers including the heads of state of Pakistan and Colombia argued that the single greatest help they could receive to fight poverty and disease and reduce tensions was highly political: market access for their goods to the US and the EU.

The Financial Times is the media sponsor of the Clinton Global Initiative

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