Optimist with plans for making world a better place

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Former president Bill Clinton is running late, leaving Seamus, his chocolate Labrador, to pad his way around his home in suburban Chappaqua to greet visitors.

A cushion on a chair in the living room reads: “My target in life is to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” Eventually, a trim-looking Mr Clinton appears, dressed in a red polo shirt and beige slacks, coffee cup in hand.

Soon he is talking rapidly and passionately about his role as special United Nations representative on tsunami relief and about the Clinton Global Initiative his plan to bring together leading politicians and business people to discuss solutions to some of the world's toughest problems.

The meeting, due to take place in New York in mid-September, sounds suspiciously like a re-run of the Davos World Economic Forum, the global elite's annual talkathon in the Swiss mountains. But Mr Clinton demurs. “We don't need two Davoses. That's not what this about.”

He adds: “I am not one of the Davos bashers. I think on balance it's been a huge net plus.” But on the other hand, “people are occasionally frustrated because they are not asked to do anything”.

The Clinton Global Initiative will be shorter and more focused than Davos and easily accessible to all the world leaders in New York for the UN's September general session. Participants will be asked to pledge specific action in one of four areas: the escape from poverty, forging a partnership between the developed and developing world; religion, conflicts and reconciliation in the 21st century; climate change; and enhancing governance.

“That's the difference between this and Davos. I tell people if you just want to talk, don't come. If you want to talk and learn about these issues and then, at the end, make a commitment, come because we're going to check and see if you did it.”

Mr Clinton, ever the can-do optimist, says the opportunity for change is ready to be seized. “I figure if we could do this every year for a decade with somewhere between 500 and 1,200-1,500 people over the course of a decade, we could really change the world.”

In the world according to Clinton, three seismic non-economic shifts have occurred since the fall of the Berlin Wall that now need to be exploited.

First, more than half the world's people live under governments they voted for, for the first time in history, “a truly astonishing statistic, considering the fact that China is a quarter of the world's population”.

Second, the internet has had explosive growth as a tool of communication. One example was the Sars epidemic, when Chinese youth “raised holy hell” on the internet and forced the government to admit to a health disaster. Another example was the worldwide response to the Asian tsunamis. “About 30 per cent of American households gave something and over half of them gave over the internet.”

The third big development since 1989 is the huge expansion of non-governmental organisations, known previously in the US as charitable foundations. He cites the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is spending a billion dollars on health in India and Africa.

“All three of these things have basically evolved the power and shaped the common good into the hands of ordinary citizens.”

Mr Clinton jokes that Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, tapped him to help to raise money for the Asian tsunami effort because his sweet-talk and contacts meant he could get “blood out of a turnip”. But his role is deadly serious and goes well beyond fundraising.

The tsunami relief effort offers a test of international resolve to instigate change, beyond the clean-up in stricken countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It means tackling ethnic and religious conflict but also building better homes, schools, hospitals and roads and to diversify their economies. “To me that's the most thrilling thing of all.”

Mr Clinton pays tribute to Tony Blair and the British-led effort to offer debt relief to impoverished nations. And he wants to drive home to the private sector the importance of trade and investment and debt relief and the role of aid.

Not for the first time during the interview, he returns to defend his record in office as a promoter of free trade. He singles out the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and the trade pact with Jordan. “I still think I'm basically a free trader.”

On governance, he concedes that corruption in developing countries is a serious problem but adds: “I would say capacity, or lack of capacity, is a bigger problem than corruption and often leads to corruption.”

By capacity, he means the lack of talented, well-educated people to make a difference. “I don't know how many new democracies I've been to in my relatively brief period of time since the fall of the Berlin Wall since I was president and afterwards where I thought they had a good, honest president, bright, committed and maybe 20 to 25 able people helping.”

Mr Clinton says that aside from political leaders such as Mr Blair, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and King Abdullah of Jordan, he has commitments from “hundreds and hundreds” of business leaders to attend the inaugural Initiative event.

Among those who have signed up are Rupert Murdoch, News International's chairman, and Dick Parsons, TimeWarner's chief executive. Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are both sponsoring the event.

Time is running short. An aide, who has been anxiously looking at his watch, is now hovering over Mr Clinton. The former president takes one more question on Guantánamo Bay. Then he reluctantly winds up, fixing his visitors with a firm handshake as if to check whether they are the latest converts to his cause.

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