On the 10th anniversary of the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton assesses the state of the world, and of his post-presidency.
About two weeks after Bill Clinton left the White House, in 2001, I went up to Chappaqua, New York, in hopes of getting a sense of his new life, for a story I never wound up writing. As a reporter for The New York Times, I had covered his second term—that tornado of surpluses and subpoenas, V‑chips and cruise-missile strikes—and I was having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of Bill Clinton at rest. The newly retired president didn’t look all that pleased to spot one of his old shadows in the crowd when he emerged, in blue jeans and a jean jacket, to shake a few hands after eating a chicken sandwich for lunch, seated prominently in the window of the Chappaqua Restaurant & Cafe. “What are you doing up here, James?” he asked, moving away down the line. “Must be a slow news day.”
Then, inevitably, he drifted back, and began talking about just how much he was enjoying being out of office: what “great therapy” it was to be unpacking in his new home, emptying some 180 boxes and filling shelves with 1,100 books; what “a great thing” it was to have time to read (“I’ve got 10 or 12 books I’m fooling with”); how relaxing it was to watch a lot of basketball (okay, along with some C-SPAN); how restorative to get up whenever he felt like it in the morning. “Most days, I just glance at the newspaper,” he insisted. “It’s amazing how oblivious you can get to whatever’s going on.”
He did not seem, in other words, entirely reconciled to a quiet life in the suburbs. He was, after all, just 54 years old. “I miss the work,” he told me. “I loved the work.”
He said he needed to pay attention to the family finances for a time, in case something happened to him. “Not all the men in my family are all that long-lived,” he remarked—a reference, I thought, to the early death of his father, which has always seemed to haunt him. (His own quadruple bypass lay three years in the future.) “I’ve got all these ideas,” he said. “What I’m really interested in is what my kind of public service is going to be, here in America and around the world … I’ve got to think that through.”
At the time—indeed, for the next couple of years—even people close to Bill Clinton wondered whether he would ever bring that period of cogitation to a definitive conclusion. They wondered whether he could discipline his curiosity and impulses sufficiently to focus on just a handful of causes, as Jimmy Carter had so effectively done, or whether, as The Atlantic put it in 2003, his post-presidency would turn out to be “limbo in overdrive.”
In his distinction-defying way, Clinton has managed to prove the worriers both right and, more fundamentally, wrong. He certainly hasn’t focused; instead, he has found a way to turn his appetite for everything and everyone—along with his instinctive preference for what he has called “bite-size” approaches over sweeping, one-size-fits-all solutions—into a force for significant change, through the Clinton Foundation and through the do-gooder conference he created, the Clinton Global Initiative, or CGI, as he usually calls it. Overall, Bill Clinton has conducted the most energetic, high-profile post-presidency since at least Teddy Roosevelt’s, pouring himself into philanthropic, political, and, yes, moneymaking ventures. But besides supporting his wife as she worked as a senator, secretary of state, and once-and-future presidential candidate, he has made his most unconventional contribution through the Clinton Global Initiative. On the cusp of its 10th anniversary, I sat down with the former president in Washington, D.C., to ask about its lessons so far, and what he hopes to do with it in the future.
He said he came up with the idea for the Clinton Global Initiative after attending too many conferences where, he felt, elites chattered about the world’s problems but never committed themselves to useful action. He thought he could use his influence to get philanthropists, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations to coalesce around specific projects.
“What I was trying to do when I started was to create a—not so much a clearinghouse, but a network of people committed to the principle that, instead of just talking and learning about problems, we ought to all do something about them. And it shouldn’t matter if we can’t do everything,” Clinton told me. “That, in the aggregate, if everybody who could do something did, and there was some place to learn what made the most sense—what was likely to have the greatest positive impact—that in the end it would make a real difference.”
The “Commitments to Action” that Bill Clinton has required for participation in his initiative have resulted, over 10 years, in a bewildering array of some 2,900 projects, from mentoring female solar-energy entrepreneurs in Nigeria, to promoting bicycle riding in Sri Lanka, to expanding kids’ vocabularies in Oakland. Clinton argues that these initiatives can be summed to clear bottom lines. “You’ve got big numbers: more than 40 million people with better access to education and almost 30 million with better access to sanitation and clean water; 11 million women with better access to credit,” he said. “You know, this kind of stuff—it just built up over time.”
Over the course of the next hour and 20 minutes, he proceeded to hopscotch from Ukraine to India to Arkansas, from a novel way to determine fish prices along the Indonesian coast, to an efficient means of training Rwandan health-care workers, to the reason he missed out on the boom in the stock market. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.
On his core goal, promoting interdependence in the face of resurgent nationalism:
I think there is a contest here in the world today where there are basically … three models. There’s autocratic governments trying to take advantage of market opportunities—what [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán embraced the other day, authoritarian capitalism . And then there are nonnational, nongovernmental forces like Boko Haram [and] the IS in Iraq and Syria, who believe that the most important thing they can do is to be effective forces of destruction … The third forces are the ones that I tried to help dominate in the 1990s and have worked for since in the private sector, in the nongovernmental sector: the people who believe that … if we are interdependent, we basically [have] to define the terms of our interdependence in positive ways. That requires more shared prosperity, more shared responsibilities in the form of inclusive governments, and a vigorous private and nongovernmental sector—and at the core believing that what we have in common is more important than our differences, and that we have to quit fighting over a meager pie and try to build a future together.
Why this struggle is so intense today:
I had hoped that by now what we tried to do in the ’90s would have borne more fruit. But I think it’s impossible to minimize the impact of 9/11 and the way we reacted to it, and the financial crisis and the inevitable consequences which flowed from it. I think [9/11 and the financial crash], in ways that were both direct and often indirect, gave energy to the forces of disintegration, if you will, and required those of us who believe in the forces of integration to work even harder.
Yes, the international headlines today are awful—but the underlying trends remain hopeful:
I think in spite of the truly terrible headlines in so many areas today—you know, the 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the people killed in the Kenyan mall by al-Shabaab, including an unbelievable Dutch nurse who went back to Harvard and got her Ph.D. in public health, who was running our operations in Tanzania. When she was eight and a half months pregnant, she and her architect partner went to Nairobi because it’s the best place to have a baby. And she was just walking in a mall and they were wiped out .
But the trend lines underneath that are still pretty positive … There’s been a precipitous drop in the number of truly poor people in the world and a substantial increase in the global middle class . And if you just look at the economics that way in the developing world, the only places … where poverty’s going up and there’s not an expansion of the middle class are places where the population’s growing so fast that there’s no way they can create enough jobs to overcome that. Everyplace else in the developing world, the trend line is good. There have been dramatic improvements in health care. There’s been a big increase in the number of girls in school and the number of women in the workforce and the number of women who have access to credit and are going into business for themselves. And the bad things that we read are in effect a reaction to a trend that Malala [Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist] reflects—that is, she got shot by people who were reacting to something that really is going on. And it was a tragedy, and it’s a great credit to her that she’s spending her life trying to keep the courage of young girls and women and their allies up …
Look at the fact that information technology can be used to detonate improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs, but is largely being used to empower the poor in many places. In Haiti, most Haitians had no access to basic banking services and they almost all had cellphones, so Denis O’Brien, an Irish entrepreneur who owns the biggest cellphone company in Haiti, partnered with a Canadian bank, Scotiabank, to begin offering banking services to low-income people who had cash. Pretty soon, they had competition …
[There’s also] the continent-wide effort that’s being made now to use mobile technology to involve Africans in banking, even though Africa’s the poorest continent. Twenty-three percent of Africans now have a bank account because of the cellphone . And so all these things that are going on sort of are under the radar screen, but they deserve to be considered, because by and large, more people are being affected by the positive developments than the negative ones.
So it’s too soon to declare the experiment in positive interdependence a failure.
Why conflict between Israel and Hamas reveals a dark side of interdependence:
Hamas is feeling weak and disempowered, and they fire 3,000 rockets into Israel. And because of the Iron Dome, they don’t kill anybody, and they get to say the Israelis are the bad guys for killing 1,800 people while all they did was kill 65 citizens, even though they had rockets in schools. They positioned themselves in a way to force the Israelis to kill civilians. It shows you the tragedy of really tight interdependence—because [the two sides] live next to each other, defined in negative terms. Those tunnels were to be used for destruction … Ever since [Benjamin] Netanyahu succeeded to the prime ministership, he’s had a government without a majority … for making peace with the Palestinians. So [the two sides are] no less interdependent than they were when Yitzhak Rabin was alive and handed over the first big chunk of the West Bank to the Palestinians, [which] cost him his life …
But it’s a complicated world. In every one of the instances, we have to ask ourselves, even if we’re not in government: Is there anything that I can do about this? How can I elevate the positive forces and undermine the negative forces of interdependence?
How American contractors profiteer from government-funded development:
The typical American-funded project has American contractors who take, between overheads back home and in-the-area administrative fees, 35 to 50 percent. It used to be, by the way, that every developed country did this, but America is about the only one still doing it. And I’ve been trying to break it for a long time …
I’ll tell you how much money we’re gonna save over a five-year period [through the Clinton Foundation’s Health Access Initiative in Rwanda, where the administrative fee is only 7 percent of the total cost]. It will give 75 million more dollars to the Rwandans. That’s a small country of 11 million people [where we can put that money] directly into health-care training and management … We’re doing this with funds from our donors, because I never take any money from the American government. This is just money to the government of Rwanda. But we’re doing this with them with all these universities who are extremely proud to be doing this and are trying to break the stranglehold of excessive overheads by contractors. And you know, it’s a small miracle, but it’s sort of a miracle. And if everybody knows about this, I keep thinking, surely sooner or later we’ll have to stop the old way and start the new way, and we can take the money we are spending and save millions more lives. That’s the sort of thing CGI was organized to do: find ways to do things faster, cheaper, better.
Why corporations increasingly identify their own interests with global development:
Companies are geniuses at supply chains, especially global consumer companies. So for example, Coca-Cola … made a commitment and [brought] clean water as well as Coca-Cola … to remote parts of the world as part of their commitment . PepsiCo just did a partnership with us to bring nutritional supplements that we’re going to manufacture in India to stunted kids in poor rural areas that would otherwise not be able to get [them] . Walmart has done as much as almost any big company overseas to integrate sustainability and environmental practices into their core business model—especially in poor countries, because it’s also good economics as well as responsible to the environment. So a lot of these companies, they do these things knowing that over the long run, if they want to keep reaching out, they can’t sell 100 percent of their product to [the] 15 percent of the world’s population that [is] already well-off by Western standards. They gotta keep reaching everybody else.
My favorite is Procter & Gamble, which makes a lot of consumer products. About a year ago, Chelsea went to Asia to celebrate with them their 6 billionth [liter of clean water]. They’ve got a little package that if you put in basically a big vat of fetid water—it costs a dime—it will suck all the impurities out of the water and put it at the bottom. Then you just pour the water through a filter—which can be a simple cotton cloth—and a family of four has enough water to last three days. And they’re probably—they’re way beyond 6 billion now .
If they have healthy people in remote rural places, then they can extend their supply chain and they’ll have people who’ll be able to buy consumer products. So I think that they really do believe—I think—that instead of seeing this as separate “corporate social responsibility,” to the extent that this can become an integrated part of their mission, they can build a world that we can all share.
But government still matters:
So are the companies more important than the American government? I don’t think so. I think it’s not an either/or thing … It is quite possible that between the business community and the U.S. government, we could have basically an investment of about $30 billion a year in Africa. The Chinese [pledged $20 billion in 2012], with all government. The money we spend is often not as visible to people, because an enormous amount of American money is spent on health care … So the point is, we can do this in ways where the government does what it can and should do—in this case focus on something that you can’t expect the private sector to finance alone, like health care or education. And we then take all of what is now a fair amount of loose cash in the hands of American companies and individuals around the world … So I don’t think it’s either/or.
About those overpaid American contractors again:
Let me back up and say that the United States has always given, in absolute terms, a lot of money in foreign aid. But in comparative terms, we give a smaller percentage of our national income in foreign assistance than any other wealthy country . In the Cold War, this was largely and widely accepted, because we were spending more on defense, so we essentially provided a defense umbrella that included Europe and Japan … So don’t misunderstand me. I think America should give more in foreign assistance than it does. But we could give more effectively if we just cut how much we [give] to our own contractors. And, you know, it’s an obsession of mine in my old age—I hope that I don’t have to be buried knowing that we’re still the only rich country in the world that gives this … percentage of foreign-aid money to our own people.
On whether Hillary Clinton will run for president:
I have no idea if she’s going to run. I know nobody believes that, but I don’t.
But if she becomes president, CGI might stop taking foreign money, to avoid any conflict of interest.
I would bend over backwards to do whatever was necessary … I think CGI now is enough of a brand, it has enough support, that we can do what we have to do to finance it from American sources and then make it available to the rest of the world.
His next frontier for encouraging philanthropy:
I’d like to get the Asians more involved, because I think these Asian countries, they’re rising, but … India … still [has] more really poor people than anybody else in the world. China still has over 150 million people living on less than [$1] a day, for all their prosperity …
I’m very encouraged that Alibaba [the enormous Chinese e-commerce company] is going to have an IPO this year and Jack Ma, [a] founder of the company, is going to, I think, leave the operations and run [his] foundation * … And he sought out Bill Gates, he sought out me and two or three other people, and we talked about what he can do to be effective. So I think that … trying to build civil society elsewhere is quite important .
On using technology to promote development:
I also think that we have only scratched the surface of the benefit that technology can provide … I just went back to Aceh, [Indonesia,] for the 10-year review of what happened after the tsunami . One of the most popular things we did [was] we tried to get fishing boats for every family that lost a boat … And we also tried to get them all cellphones. Because once they could call 30 miles up and down the coast, they always knew what the real price of fish was. And it increased their incomes, on average, 30 percent. So I believe that we have only scratched the surface of the economic and educational empowerment opportunities that information technology will give. I think it’s just the beginning.
On Al Gore’s legacy:
I loved [my years in government], but … if you go back and look at the headlines of most of the major political struggles and all that, they were mostly over “What are you going to do, and how much money are you going to spend on it?” … There was very little attention to the question of “No matter what you’re going to do and no matter how much money you’re going to spend, how do you propose to do it?” So that you turn your good intentions into real changes. That’s what our reinventing-government effort was about, and I think it really is one of Al Gore’s great legacies . I think we really did a good job with that reinventing-government effort, but it was alien territory when we started. Most people … couldn’t imagine that was something government did—constantly reexamining whether you were actually achieving your purposes. And it turns out it’s sometimes more difficult to measure outcomes than you think.
Why he still gives paid speeches:
You know, I had my heart problem, first one thing then another happened. And then when Hillary became secretary of state—actually, when she ran for president, then when she became secretary of state—I decided that we wouldn’t have any investments. So I left the money in the bank, and the good news is, I missed the stock-market crash; the bad news is that I missed the uptake. So I just left the money in the bank. So I still have to work a little bit, but I don’t mind that . I enjoy that. I like those speeches: I get up and meet people all over the world and all over the country and learn things I wouldn’t learn otherwise. It keeps me in touch with the life of younger people, which I like.
On whether, in the end, he did figure out the right formula for his post-presidency:
It’s worked out great. This foundation is my life now. I love it. I never dreamed that it would be what it turned out to be … And then there’s CGI, which has acquired a life and an identity of its own … It’s much more famous than the other things that I do in America. It’s somehow branded in people’s minds. I was trying to figure it out in 2001, and it’s worked out pretty well. And it looks like I’m going to live to be a grandpa, so it’ll be good … 
I have always believed you should never worry about doing something you can’t do anymore. You just gotta keep doing new things. And I’ve enjoyed every phase of my life, from the time I was a little boy, but I’ve really loved this. I never dreamed it would turn out this way. You know? And I mean, look, I’m not naive, I know it’s the government that still really matters. It matters—there are things you can only do with and through government. But it still is just stunning, the sheer numbers of people that you can help through philanthropy.
By James Bennet
Photo Credit: Dylan Coulter
Source publication: The Atlantic