The Clinton Global Initiative Isn’t Really Dead

The obituaries missed how Bill Clinton’s most important post-presidential legacy lives on in spirit – and in practice.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22:  Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton embrace during the Opening Plenary Session: Reimagining Impact for the Clinton Global Initiative on September 22, 2014 at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton embrace during the Opening Plenary Session: Reimagining Impact for the Clinton Global Initiative on September 22, 2014 at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

The news looked grim: On Jan. 12, the New York State Labor Department issued a statutory warning that the Clinton Global Initiative would be laying off 22 employees within the next three months. Media coverage, especially in right-wing outlets, greeted this routine bureaucratic announcement as proof that Bill Clinton had been forced to shut down his signature philanthropic project in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat because — as one website put it — “nobody pays bribes to people unable to deliver favors.”

Like so much publicity about CGI and the Clinton Foundation during the months leading up to the presidential election, however, those stories were heavy on hostile innuendo and light on basic facts. The obituaries obscured the bigger picture, showing how the ambitious enterprise had permanently changed the direction of philanthropy, both in the United States and abroad. They also missed the fact that CGI hadn’t really died.

Established by the former president in September 2005, to coincide with the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly, CGI drew heads of state, corporate leaders, nonprofit executives, and assorted celebrities who wanted to act as well as talk about major world problems, including poverty, disease, conflict, and climate change. What distinguished CGI from the beginning was Bill Clinton’s insistence that every participant make a “commitment to action.” Over 12 years, CGI commitments grew into “action networks” that brought together companies, nonprofits, and governments in thousands of projects.

Contrary to the negative commentary, the January announcement about CGI wasn’t the product of a post-election capitulation. Last September, almost two months before Election Day, Bill Clinton publicly announced the end of CGI at the organization’s 12th annual conference in New York City. He had informed the CGI staff in August, as part of a broader reorganization of the Clinton Foundation that anticipated Hillary Clinton’s expected victory in November.

So the state layoff notice in January reflected nothing beyond the Clinton Foundation’s decision to keep many CGI employees on payroll for up to six months while they sought other jobs. To describe that bureaucratic event as a mark of disgrace or defeat was a misunderstanding — or an intentional misinterpretation — which served as a coda to the torrent of angry, exaggerated, and often inaccurate attacks on CGI during Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated presidential candidacy.

In his farewell speech to CGI members at Manhattan’s Sheraton hotel on Sept. 21, Bill Clinton told them that the initiative — inaugurated there almost exactly 11 years earlier — “worked out better than I ever dreamed.” After more than a decade of developing CGI from a casual notion into a formidable entity, credited with delivering quality health care, clean water, improved education, disaster relief, and other essential benefits to millions of people around the world, he might have thought that those achievements would speak for themselves. But CGI’s work had been tarnished by repeated accusations of “corruption” and “favoritism” toward donors.

CGI and the Clinton Foundation rarely came under such criticism during the years before Hillary Clinton became the favored candidate to succeed Barack Obama as president. From the beginning, CGI’s membership, operations, and tone were strictly nonpartisan, welcoming participation by Republicans (and independents) who shared its objectives. Republican business leaders like John Chambers of Cisco Systems provided financial support and undertook the “commitments to action” that were central to its mission; Republican politicians like John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Carly Fiorina delivered speeches at its annual meeting, laced with extravagant praise for its work.

For the most partisan Republicans, even some like Fiorina who had participated in CGI, the election-year opportunity to smear the Clintons was irresistible. One illuminating example was a widely publicized release of emails between Hillary Clinton and her aide Huma Abedin that depicted a $32 million “commitment” by the crown prince of Bahrain as a bribe to win an official meeting with Clinton in 2009. But the commitment — a pledge to provide college scholarships to Bahraini students — had been made in 2005, three years before anyone knew she would become secretary of state. And not a penny of those Bahraini funds went to the Clintons, their foundation, or CGI. Yet many media outlets fell for that kind of fraudulent “revelation,” clouding the reputations of the Clinton initiatives and their sponsors.

Though the smears can be safely ignored, it’s true that CGI’s real impact has never been easy to assess. During its 12 years, CGI members made more than 3,600 commitments in over 180 countries, valued at many billions of dollars, which are said to have “improved the lives of over 435 million people,” in a wide variety of ways, from better education for 52 million children to safe drinking water for 33 million people and better maternity and early childhood support for 114 million families. They claim to have invested billions of dollars in small businesses, housing development, health care, and energy efficiency, creating up to 4 million “clean jobs” around the world. All of that data relies on reporting by CGI members, with very limited auditing by CGI staff — and even less independent reporting on the commitments or their results by news outlets. It’s natural and inevitable to feel skepticism toward such claims — and the leaders of CGI were not immune to it.

That was why, in the months before its 10th conference in 2014, the Clinton Foundation’s leadership undertook a formidable effort to collect and analyze all of the information that had flowed into CGI’s offices since its founding conference in September 2005. They outsourced the job to Palantir Technologies, a software giant based in Palo Alto that handles “big data” tasks for banks, major corporations, and hedge funds, as well as the Pentagon and several U.S. intelligence agencies. Although Palantir’s largest shareholder is libertarian investor (and eventual Donald Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, its management had enlisted the company as a CGI member years earlier for philanthropic purposes. (Specifically, to develop computer technology to more effectively harness volunteers who show up to assist disaster victims.)

The Palantir study demanded months of work, at considerable expense, which the company performed on a pro bono basis. Unveiled at the CGI conference in September 2014, the results were revealing and instructive — but were reported almost nowhere beyond the philanthropic trade press. Of all the CGI commitments, nearly 42 percent had been completed; just under 40 percent were still underway; about 12 percent were deemed “inactive,” because their sponsors had not reported in for two years or more; almost 5 percent were marked as unsuccessful; and 1.6 percent were described as “stalled.”

The Palantir analysis went even deeper, seeking clues to what had made some CGI commitments succeed at accomplishing their goals and others fail. What the failed commitments shared in nearly every instance was that they had run out of money. Among the most spectacular failures was Sir Richard Branson’s 2006 commitment to invest $3 billion of Virgin Group profits on clean energy projects. The final numbers showed that he had put up less than 10 percent of that amount, while his airlines’ carbon emissions skyrocketed.

The most productive were partnerships that paired a nonprofit with a corporation, as in Procter & Gamble’s work providing billions of gallons of clean water to communities in the developing world through charities like World Vision and ChildFund. To Clinton, these partnerships and networks, often including national or local government agencies, epitomized his own political philosophy: “Everyone counts, everyone deserves a chance, everyone has a role to play, and we all do better when we work together.” In most of the countries where CGI members operated, governments were unable to solve their own problems, but the problems could not be solved without government participation.

If not every project worked out, as the Clintons and their staff were quick to acknowledge, the influence of CGI reached well beyond the endeavors of its members. As much as any specific mission, the aim was to change the way nonprofits operate.

“We started CGI to create a new kind of community built around the new realities of our modern world,” Clinton said in his farewell speech, “where problem-solving requires the active partnership of government, business, and civil society. This partnership model, which may seem self-evident today, was simply not how philanthropy and corporate responsibility worked over a decade ago.”

Indeed, CGI had long since proved itself as an innovative model, moving the nonprofit, philanthropic, and corporate spheres toward entrepreneurial cooperation. Even the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, every year — where former Bill Clinton aide Doug Band had first conceived of CGI as a kind of protest against elite inertia — has renovated itself as a more action-oriented event. And CGI has inspired dozens of new events and activist discussions around the annual September meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, which had once merely stimulated a frenzy of cocktail receptions.

As Jane Wales, an Aspen Institute vice president who attended almost every CGI conference for 12 years, put it last fall after the final meeting, “My feeling is the job is done — it is a success. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, well, in philanthropy, it is the quickest way to impact.”

On Feb. 2, President Clinton released his foundation’s 2016 annual report, with a letter from him to its supporters. “The attacks on our efforts have not come from people and organizations who understand or care about the work we do,” he wrote. “By contrast, those who do understand have a very different view of what we do and how we do it. The three main charity review groups, which take a detailed look at governance, financial health, transparency, and accountability, have given us high ratings: Charity Navigator: Four Stars; CharityWatch: A; and GuideStar: Platinum.” He went on to pledge that most of the foundation’s initiatives, aside from CGI, will continue — notably including the Clinton Health Access Initiative, whose programs have saved the lives of millions of HIV/AIDS patients across the world.

And as for CGI, perhaps its critics shouldn’t gloat just yet. In his letter, Clinton noted, “We have kept a small group of people at CGI to help those who have made commitments keep them, and are looking now at how best to offer our members and other concerned citizens the chance to dramatically increase the impact of some of the best ideas CGI has produced — and others that may arise.” More to the point, its student program, Clinton Global Initiative University, which has sponsored annual meetings that have welcomed almost 7,000 young people with their own ideas about how to save the world, will continue next October at Northeastern University in Boston. CGI may be gone, but its spirit lives.

Photo credit: MICHAEL LOCCISANO/Getty Images

Joe Conason is founder and editor-in-chief of The National Memo.

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