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Clinton Group Unites Private, Public Spheres on Big Issues

September 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Amid the G-20 and U.N. summits, former President Bill Clinton's foundation brought together big names from both the private and public sectors to tackle major issues.
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JIM LEHRER: And next tonight, this was the week that was for meetings of international leaders. One was different than the others: The Clinton Global Initiative brought together big names from the private as well as the public worlds.

Ray Suarez has been covering that event, and he talked with Judy Woodruff about it earlier this evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray, hello there.

RAY SUAREZ: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Clinton, former president, a lot of clout, but no official power. So how does this work? What exactly goes on there?

RAY SUAREZ: The Clinton Global Initiative happens at the same time as the opening of the United Nations General Assembly each year. But unlike the emphasis a couple of blocks away at the U.N., the Clinton Global Initiative emphasizes a sort of hybrid marketplace. It brings together government officials, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, bankers, and corporate chiefs, creates a kind of marketplace where investors can meet up with the people looking for investment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they go on to make commitments, some of them. Tell us about those. What are some examples of those this week?

RAY SUAREZ: Commitments are the stock and trade of this week at the CGI in New York, and they can be really big things, like adding zinc and iron to packaged foods to improve the nutritional value of foods sold to people in the developing world, or insuring millions of the poorest farmers in the world in a way that they’ve never been able to be insured before, against crop losses, against the loss of life and their health.

But also emphasizing small things, developing models for buildings that can be built easily and cheaply and still be energy-efficient. Over the years, the Clinton Global Initiative claims that it’s put together commitments, deals, promises totaling $46 billion to improve the health, the sustainability, and the daily lives of millions of the poorest people on the Earth, $46 billion, as I said. And just today, Pegasus Capital Advisors announced a deal — five years, $2 billion — to help build eco-friendly housing.

Measuring success

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as you say, they are only commitments. How does he get people to fulfill these obligations? How do they monitor this? And by the way, he himself had to demonstrate some accountability last year, or earlier this year, when his wife was named secretary of state.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Clinton Global Initiative concedes that it is difficult to measure the follow-through, the impact of these commitments, and they've spent the last couple of years trying to create a machinery where there's constant communication between all the parties, and Clinton Global Initiative knows whether the commitments made here in New York are being fulfilled.

There's regular monitoring. There's regular progress reports. And if you don't follow through, you don't get invited back. And this is a hot ticket.

As you mentioned, the former president himself had to come clean in a way, being more transparent about who funds this organization, where the money comes from, when his own wife went to work for the Obama administration and faced Senate confirmation as secretary of state. And incidentally, he was able to get her to close the conference today outlining the Obama administration's plans for food security in the most challenged parts of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I guess she has a hard time saying no when he asks her to make a speech.

RAY SUAREZ: That's right.

New role for Clinton

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray, his role in doing this is almost unique, isn't it, in his ability to convene something like this?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's funny. He said several times during the week -- and he is very visible, as the conference rolls out all week -- he said several times that he's out of power, but that's not strictly speaking so. He's got a lot of influence, a lot of clout, and he's able to use his convening power to bring people together.

When Northern Ireland asked for a special conference to attract investors, in just the space of a couple of days, a session was put together for this week's conference so that people interested in investing in Northern Ireland could meet the top officials involved in bringing inward investment.

At one point during that meeting, President Clinton had the lights brought up in the house and he started naming specific people out in the audience who had money to invest. Last night, during a session on New Orleans, the mayor of a Mississippi town got up and talked about the problems with the water supply in her town, how the water is healthy to drink and meets acceptable standards, but is discolored and how that discourages investment.

And President Clinton said, out loud into his microphone, "If you in this room raise half the money, half of the $18 million needed to clean up the water supply, I'll shake loose the other half from somewhere in the federal government," a really kind of audacious statement from someone who says he's out of power.

'Hard to say no'

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he's able to do things, Ray, that he could not even do as president?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, a couple of times during this week when I was speaking to bankers, CEOs, people from NGOs, they said to me, well, when Bill Clinton asks you to do something, it's hard to say no.

So it's interesting watching the creation and development of this odd hybrid with someone who still has a lot of influence in government, who still has a lot of connections in government, stands at one-arms-length removed and is able to bring together, using the influence gained as president, to affect the way things happen in governmental circles and in private investment circles. It's an odd hybrid but, for the people of the CGI, I guess an exciting one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez, reporting on the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to talk to you, Judy.