Eva Suarez attends a plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative, feels poor.
This week marked the fifth annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative — in other words, what the former President spends his time on when he’s not jetsetting with pretty ladies or hobnobbing with Kim Jong II. Clinton provides a forum for world leaders, major philanthropists, international CEOs, and prominent members of the media to discuss solutions for global problems. Unlike the Davos Convention, the emphasis is less on talking and more on creating “commitments”– explicit promises to give money to a specific plan or cause. Clinton expects his invites to give money, even without the prospect of taking a catnap in the Lincoln Bedroom, and he strives to make sure they don’t forget it. This was an event for the best and brightest, or at least the richest, of Clinton’s honchos. Before a panel on developing Northern Ireland, Clinton played the schoolyard bully and had the house lights brought up so he could call audience members who had not yet given money out by name. Sessions seemed like trade fairs; each presenter was out for the crowd’s money as much as their interest. Thursday’s plenary session on infrastructure was no different, with panelists Jeffrey Immelt, the head of GE, Carlos Ghosn, the head of Nissan-Renault, John T. Chambers, the head of Cisco, Kristina Peterson, the head of finance of Suntech America, and Kofi Annan, Columbia Global Fellow. Moderating the panel was Ray Suarez, of the PBS Newshour.
In the green room before the show, Suarez brought the panelists together with Bill Clinton for a warm up discussion. There was continental breakfast, and Usher was also there, maybe to serve as a subtle reminder to Clinton that he’s not the first black president, no matter how many gospel churches he cries in. There was lots of juicy “off the record” conversation, and lots of swag. Repeatable from backstage — Kofi Annan likes orange juice, and Bill Clinton knows a surprising amount about planes. After about 45 minutes of croissants and basking in each other’s glory, the session began.
The star power wasn’t limited to the stage — the hall was full of celebs and power players. Eager to prove their empathy and understanding in between taking multimillion dollar movie roles, I saw Ben Stiller and Barbara Streisand. And also The Reverend Jesse Jackson and Flight Lieutenant Jesse Rawlings and John Glenn. And their posses.
The topic was “Strengthening Infrastructure”, and Suarez began the discussion by acknowledging the term can “make your eyes roll back in your head, so hopefully our panel can make it sexy.” Not quite. With the exception of Annan, all the panelists were business people eager to push their products under the guise of doing good deeds. Carlos Ghosn discussed the growing affordability and practicality of electric cars, and conveniently suggested that his own Nissan makes the best electric cars. Peterson took much the same tone about solar power. John Chambers, the head of Sisco, assumed a more ideological position. He had a lot to say about “talking in new ways” and the importance of companies and organizations strategizing together, at least until he started talking about developing broadband in rural areas to change the way people there can communicate using Sisco products. He pointed out that although much of rural Africa lacks roads and a clean water system, most people have cell phones. That led to a exchange on “leap frogging” technology in the developing world, and whether third world countries, given the right support, would adopt the same technologies at a comparable rate to industrialized nations, or if they will develop about 30 years behind. No one had a satisfying answer.
The panel was high energy, it was fun, but in retrospect it was quite lacking. Most of the problem lay in time restrictions, as the session was only an hour long. There were too many panelists on a topic too vital to be rushed through, resulting in a very general discussion. Busy pushing their products, as opposed to choosing specific places for their examples, they all referred to “Africa” and, in a surprisingly politically uncorrect turn of phrase, “the third world.” I would’ve expected even a freshman taking their very first Anthro class to know enough to say “developing.”
Though many issues of infrastructure can and will be solved with stuff, there is a lot that needs to be said about the nature of how we choose to solve these problems, start these dialogues and distribute this stuff. Discussions on infrastructure and the developing world often end up a little too patronizing. In the panelists’ defense, it’s hard to have a discussion about relief without sounding a little paternal.
The star of the panel was definitely Annan. As the only non-business man, he was the only person free from the constraints of the market and emerged as a strong moral voice. When Ms. Peterson began talking about Africa’s solar potential, Annan cut in and informed us that European companies want to generate solar power in Saharan Africa for European use. That’s okay, he said, but Africa has to provide for the local energy needs first. In the part of the discussion about electric cars, Kofi cautioned against continuing a trend that has always plagued globalization—passing off our discards to poorer nations. At the heart of all of his rebuttals was the point that with what we know now, unindustrialized nations don’t have to copy “our” mistakes in the fight to catch up. African nations especially don’t want to live on handouts forever, but rather want to work themselves out of poverty.
Between the star power, the billions of dollars being thrown around between each session, and the knowledge that this one little jam-packed plenary was almost a blip in the conference radar, it was hard to pick my jaw up off the floor. Hopefully the world can benefit from big minds meeting big wallets.