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The Clinton Foundation has taken a step in the right direction with its decision to restructure its operations and refuse foreign and corporate donations if Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential election. But while the move will help ease nagging questions over conflict of interest, it does not go far enough.
Since its creation in 1997 by Bill Clinton, the foundation has raised more than $2bn and supported worthwhile causes including fighting climate change, disease, childhood obesity and discrimination against women.
Yet its critics point to blurred roles and responsibilities, notably when foreign politicians and business leaders (sometimes with questionable human rights records) offer donations to the foundation and hold meetings with senior US officials including Mrs Clinton when she was secretary of state.
The organisation seems at times to be a platform for Mr Clinton’s continued influence and a way to promote the political ambitions of his wife and possibly Chelsea, his daughter, who also sits on the board with long-time supporters.
Some of its projects have come under fire. Its showcase Clinton Global Initiative, for example, has faced questions for offering a high-profile public forum for some donors who make “pledges” that are more public relations stunts than genuine programmes.
Some attacks on the foundation, however, are unfair, or at least excessive in comparison to the conflicts inherent in the interplay of commercial interests and political influence of some of the Clintons’ opponents.
The foundation’s willingness to publish details of donors has left it more exposed to scrutiny than other organisations that merit as much attention.
Although it benefits from tax advantages and does not disburse much to other organisations, this simply reflects its approach of using its own staff to meet its objectives.
The foundation has spun out groups such as the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which has done important work in providing experts to help lower-income countries negotiate medicine prices and improve their health systems.
Mr Clinton is a significant asset. He has the contacts, stature, command of detail and willingness to influence opinion and policy to meet the social objectives of the foundation. Yet, therein lies the problem: there is always a risk that he combines commercial and political objectives with the more socially oriented ones.
Mr Clinton would do well to emulate a model adopted by Jimmy Carter, another former US president.
Mr Carter travels the world in pursuit of his objectives around peacebuilding and tackling disease, notably seeking to eradicate the scourge of guinea worm, which is close to being achieved. But there is no suggestion that Mr Carter has an agenda other than to achieve his stated goals and no confusion over the purpose of the money he raises.
The Clinton Foundation need not be wound up. But as long as the Clinton family has political ambitions, it needs to break the link with donors whose influence and motives may be mixed.
That requires an overhaul of governance. Mr Clinton is the dynamo behind the organisation and gives generously of his time. But he and his family should step down from the foundation’s board now.
Given that most funding is external, they should appoint more outsiders without longstanding personal links as directors, with a mandate to oversee its activities.
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