By Mary Dillard
I once saw an interview with Bill Clinton where he was asked “What do you think of the American people?” His response was, “Give them enough time and they always get it right.” That struck me as wildly optimistic, but stayed in my mind because I felt that it gave real insight into the man. Witnessing two days of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) reminded me of that interview. Former President Clinton seems determined to use his political capital in order to bring attention and resources to bear on some of the world’s most serious problems. And he’s as optimistic as ever.
The idea behind CGI is to get a range of people together discuss global issues, come up with action plans and steps towards action. Each morning began with a plenary session followed by working group meetings in which CGI members and invited guests met to brainstorm action items, make suggestions and most importantly, make commitments.
While the press was not allowed in the working sessions, we were able to watch video feeds of the panel discussions. I chose to watch the feeds on education in order to see what would be discussed about Africa. I knew that Bill Clinton has been extremely inspired by Kenya’s efforts at providing Universal Primary Education to all of its school age children. Kenya’s Education Minister George Saitoti reported on the popularity of the school program and what his country is doing to ensure its success.
Kenya is emphasizing teacher training, parental involvement in budget decisions and multi-age classrooms so that older students don’t feel segregated and stigmatized. Since this initiative was first announced in 2003, enrollments have skyrocketed and Minister Saitoti mentioned that the countries oldest primary school enrollee is 75 years old! At a time when over 100 million school age children around the world are not in school, this is an ambitious undertaking and Kenya’s efforts are being watched closely to see whether its program can be replicated.
On Friday’s panels, Andre Agassi touted the success of his charter school in Las Vegas which serves a 96% African American student population. Dr. Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), spoke of BRAC’s expanded initiatives in Uganda, Tanzania and Southern Sudan and John Wood of Room to Read discussed his organization’s efforts to create 10,000 bilingual libraries around the world by 2010. Author Toni Morrison attended the working sessions on education, while actor Jeffery Wright participated in the special sessions on poverty alleviation and highlighted his efforts to support the recent elections in Sierra Leone.
There seemed to be particular interest in supporting the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. On Thursday, President Clinton personally pledged $500,000 as a matching grant to support housing construction for displaced residents. By Friday, Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” campaign increased the money directed towards New Orleans by an additional $5 million. In making his announcement, President Clinton stated, “Anyone who wants to return home to New Orleans ought to be able to do so, and we want to do everything that we can to make that possible.”
It is difficult to describe the range of emotions that I felt at this event. The energy of the conference was electric. It was exciting to hear world business, governmental and non-profit leaders talk enthusiastically about their commitments to create social change. I left Thursday’s sessions buoyed by a “Clintonesque optimism”. Each day he announced more commitments from CGI partners and pledges to date total over $10 billion. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering what happens next? How does CGI insure that the commitments that are made reach the organizations that need them? How many times have global conferences inspired pledges only to find that the funds never materialized six months later?
At home, while I was turning these questions over in my head, I turned on the TV and there was Clinton again! This time at the Apollo theater in Harlem, announcing the creation of CGI-U, an initiative directed towards college students. I decided at that moment that I would suspend my academic cynicism and get my students on board. I guess optimism is contagious. Plus, it will give me an opportunity to blog some more and see firsthand how these initiatives are working.