His plans are grand, but can he save the world?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2005, 12:00am

The world's greatest thinkers, most powerful politicians and wealthiest entrepreneurs have for decades been trying to solve global problems like poverty, disease and hunger, with little success. High-profile summits have done a lot of talking, and well-meaning philanthropists given a lot of money, but their efforts have usually only resulted in a small amount of action and mountains of detailed, unfulfilled reports.

Scepticism is therefore high when former US president Bill Clinton comes on the telephone and, in his southern drawl, announces that he thinks he has a foolproof plan to save the planet.

Named the Clinton Global Initiative, it will involve, he says, a series of workshops in New York next month, at which some of the best-known names in the world will brainstorm to come up with solutions to four problems he believes are the most pressing: helping people escape poverty; religion, conflict and reconciliation; climate change; and enhancing governance.

They would discuss the topics and at the end of the September 15-17 meeting - held to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly's Millennium Goals review session - make a written pledge to take action in one of the areas.

'If I were to do this every year for a decade and people had to report back and then we issued reports on what had happened, over a 10-year period, we could have a significant impact aggregately on the problems of the world,' Mr Clinton said yesterday in an Asia-exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post.

Participants unable to meet their goals would be replaced.

'I don't have any penalty over them - they don't work for me,' he said. 'I only want people to come to this meeting every year who are interested in changing the world and taking action.'

So far, he has signed up 26 current and former heads of state, top business executives, pre-eminent scholars, and representatives of key non-governmental organisations, which his website calls 'a carefully selected group of the world's best minds and most distinguished problem solvers'.

Among them are UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, King Abdullah of Jordan, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, renowned Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, the chief executive officers of the US companies Starbucks, General Electric and DuPont, media guru Rupert Murdoch, and Hungarian-born US businessman George Soros.

Their objective, the website www.clintonglobalinitiative.com proclaims, is to 'help our world move beyond the current state of globalisation, to a more integrated global community of shared benefits, responsibilities, and values'.

The goal is to 'increase the benefits and reduce the burdens of global interdependence; to make a world of more partners and fewer enemies; and to give more people the tools they need to build a better future'.

Mr Clinton acknowledged comparisons to similar efforts, such as the World Economic Forum. While praising that forum, he insisted his initiative was not meant to be an alternative. Rather, he said his effort was smaller, more focused and dedicated to dealing with issues on which he believed the private sector and non-government communities could have a 'big impact'.

During his two terms as leader of the US, a nation of unrivalled economic and military force with seemingly unlimited resources, Mr Clinton tried, with mixed results, to resolve issues that were troubling him.

He brokered a peace deal between republicans and unionists in Northern Ireland that eventually collapsed; he did his utmost to get Israelis and Palestinians to end their conflict, without success; he took a key role in negotiations in Kyoto on climate change and the setting up of an international criminal court, efforts that his successor, George W. Bush, later abandoned; he tried to crush the growing threat of terrorism by ordering that missiles be fired into suspected militants' hideouts in Afghanistan and Sudan, but the events of September 11, 2001, revealed the strategy was ineffective; and under his leadership, a deal was struck with North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions that, over time, fell apart.

There were successes: ending the war in the former Yugoslavia, normalising relations with Vietnam, and putting the US on a strong economic path with record employment, inflation at a 30-year low, and the highest-ever home ownership. But generally, Mr Clinton's presidential record would seem to have more lows than highs.

He is still young in political terms - 59 next week - and there is time yet to build a lasting legacy. That is the most likely reason for his initiative, by far the most ambitious project he has undertaken in 30 years of being in the public eye.

He is in no doubt that he can prove the sceptics wrong and uses the example of his efforts to tackle the threat of HIV/Aids in the developing world through his William J. Clinton Foundation.

'My foundation has negotiated the cheapest prices in the world for anti-retrovirals,' Mr Clinton said. 'We are now serving directly 110,000 people and will be serving 300,000 by the end of the year in over 40 countries ... so I've got some experience here about how to take things like this to scale. I'm not asking anybody to do something that I haven't tried myself.'

Because government funding was usually given to specific countries, he was relying on businesspeople and philanthropists for most of the help - and having little difficulty finding it. Translating that success to the Clinton Global Initiative, therefore, did not seem a great stretch. 'If you do this right, you really can have an impact,' he observed. 'I think we've got a real chance to do something.'

He is certainly not short on ideas.

The recent decision by the Group of Eight richest nations at a summit in Scotland to double aid to Africa and write off the debt of the world's 18 poorest nations needed to be actualised, he determined.

'I recommend the G8 set up a working group with the Africans to say they get debt relief if they have a government that is honest, transparent, recognises human rights, but priority will go to countries that put the money into education, health care and economic development,' he said. That, and follow-up measures, 'will only improve the quality of African governments and improve the confidence of the donor countries that the money is not being wasted, but well spent'.

On climate change, he said the framework of the Kyoto Protocol was good, but the timetables it stipulated would probably need to be changed because so many countries, including his own, had not signed up.

Just how much his ideas can translate into benefiting the world's most needy people remains a matter of time, resolve and, ultimately, money.

Similarly, Mr Clinton's legacy is still formative - budding, but not yet blossoming.