The Big Dog is back. To the triumphant strains of John Williams, former president Bill Clinton took to the stage to open the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting in New York on Tuesday morning. In the audience of 1,300 were 67 heads of state from 90 countries and six continents, 600 business leaders, and over 500 representatives from international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- as well as a fair share of celebrities, political minds and policy wonks.
CGI, as it's known to the initiated, is the sort of high-roller pow-wow where Jesse Jackson might be seen grabbing a danish alongside Maggie Gyllenhall; where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Queen Rania might share a coffee -- a heavy-hitter retreat that's just as likely to result in multi-million-dollar development
projects as it is incongruous run-ins. In the next three days of panels and speeches, attendees will be treated to mind melds
between everyone from Lance Armstrong, Barbra Streisand and Ashton Kutcher to Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Bill Gates. The event has become enough of a global powerhouse that some journalists have posited it might just be the United Nations 2.0
Clinton, always one for facts and figures
, began his remarks by outlining CGI's not-insignificant accomplishments over the last five years, including over 1,900 commitments to solving the world's problems -- ranging from environmental to educational to developmental issues -- worth an estimated $63 billion.
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For the organization's sixth meeting -- which will last until Thursday of this week -- Clinton discussed a theme of empowering women and girls, and focused commitments on disaster relief and long-term recovery in Haiti, Pakistan and the Gulf Coast. Speaking to the forces of globalization, Clinton remarked, "The struggle of the 21st Century will be the blizzard of conflict between the negative and positive forces of interdependence," encouraging greater citizen engagement in global issues. "We need to get more people back home involved," he said.
After his remarks, Clinton brought to the stage several business representatives from companies ranging from the established (Procter and Gamble, Google) to the upstart (NRG
, Earth Echo
) to update the audience about commitments they had made targeting the three geographic areas. Projects ranged from new technology solutions to help flood victims in Pakistan, to solar-powered panels to light the streets in Haiti's Boucan Carre to Gulf Coast journalism scholarships for young writers aged 11 to 18.
In addition to these commitments, Clinton introduced the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, to discuss new initiatives targeting waste and waste disposal. Clinton underscored the severity of the problem -- citing the estimated "52 tons of garbage deposited every second," noting both its economic and environmental impacts, but was blunt in his assessment of rallying the public to act. "Very few people get turned on by closing landfills" he said, in typically wry Clintonspeak.
Robinson described several new projects, ones that ranged from environmental entrepreneurship training for women "rag pickers" in India to a "Plastic Disclosure Project" that will introduce a new "plastic footprint" akin to the "carbon footprint" now widely used as a measure of environmental impact.
From here, Clinton was onto a panel with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google; Tarja Halonen, president of Finland; and Robert McDonald, president, chairman, and CEO of Procter & Gamble. It was a wide-ranging discussion that touched upon everything from corporate responsibility, wireless services in Haiti, and the importance of empowering women in order to combat global issues. Clinton was back in his groove: an ex-president with a career's worth of knowledge, stories, and enthusiasm to share. It was the sort of talk that allowed the 42nd president to begin his comments with lines like this one: "We were in Africa and Hillary dragged me into this fancy hotel to meet with some folks to talk about genital mutilation."
In the coming days, Clinton will share the stage with President Obama and the first lady, as well as heads of state too numerous to mention. Lest anyone doubt the wizard behind this Oz, it was clear from the outset that the man of the hour remains William Jefferson Clinton. The stage, undeniably, was his -- the rest of us, merely actors.