This was my third Clinton Global Initiative, so I have had the opportunity to watch this event evolve.

First, the idea of government/business/NGO partnerships was a new, experimental concept.  In 2006 I wrote,

Now from my admittedly limited, outsider perspective, last I knew the various innovative ideas of venture/entrepreneurial philanthropy and public/private were supposedly still in formative, developing stages – yet here it’s almost as if these had been an operational strategy for decades, all the kinks worked out, “of course this is how it’s done”

The second year, 2007, I saw that this was very rapidly becoming a norm – people accepted the idea and considered it the way things operate.  I wrote,

So last year was proof-of-concept.  And this year we can see that it worked.  All of that energy was applied, people met their commitments.  So this year is the beginning of implementation rollout.  We’re seeing a scaling up, and many new commitments are being made.

In fact, for all of 2006’s success, 2007’s level of commitments was much, much greater.  And by 2008 the concept and process seemed almost routine.  So much was the same, in fact, that at one point I saw someone that I had not seen since the year before.  She was standing in nearly the same place as when I had last seen her, and I had the sensation that a few hours had passed.  I said that everything was so similar to the previous year that the only thing that had changed was all the women were dressed different.  (Not the men.)

This is not meant in a derogatory way, I mean that the conference proceeded like clockwork.  But at the same time, there was a difference in the energy level.  It seemed to many that it was another conference, not the new, experimental innovative event.  And probably because of the grinding primary season with his wife running for President, Bill Clinton did not have the same spark as prior years.   Also, along the lines of routinization of the conference, with the passage of time the process has also become familiar.  Writing about my early impressions, in 2006,

Except for all the security the conference is very much like any business gathering you might attend. The panels so far are very much the same, following the same format, and the panelists sitting on a stage in chairs, but not behind tables, and saying the same kinds of things you hear in panels anywhere else. And to me this is actually a surprise. Of course I didn’t know in advance what to expect of a panel of four heads of state on the stage, introduced by a former President, but it turns out that they’re just people sitting up there.

And now the idea of seeing world leaders on a panel is more routinized.  This level of transparency – world leaders on a panel answering questions rather than issuing proclamations – has been a very good thing for the world.

This is a conference about getting things done.  This was a new concept when this conference began, and the conference pioneered many techniques.  This year, according to CGI, there were 250 new commitments unveiled, valued at $8 billion to improve 158 million lives.  From a press release:

·       25 million children will have access to new or improved school feeding programs.

·       16 million children will participate in deworming programs.

·       The emission of 44 million metric tons of CO2 will be avoided.

·       Enough clean energy will be created to power the equivalent of 7 million homes in the United States.

·       75 million people will have first-time access to health care or access to improved health care.

·       $375 million will be raised to develop new vaccines and conduct medical research.

·       Over 1 billion liters of safe drinking water will be distributed.

·       50 million people will have access to mobile financial services.

·       More than $400 million will be raised for investment and credit for small and medium sized enterprises in the developing world.

This represents considerable accomplishment.

Now, to some criticisms.  There has always been a certain amount of cynicism about the business commitments here.  In 2006 I wrote that I overheard,"This is more about publicity for the people involved, things that could be done in a press release."  And this year I heard even more, with accusations of "greenwashing."  (For example, Coca Cola’s commitment that all of their water releases will "support aquatic life" by 2010 begs the question, what they have been releasing into the environment for decades and at what cost to the rest of us?)

Last year I wrote about the number of people asking, Shouldn’t Governments Be Doing This?  And in fact,

President Clinton was aware of these concerns and addressed them at the closing session.

He said that there is no question that these are problems that require a public response – a government response.  For example, it was governments that set up the regulatory processes that kept capitalism from destroying itself.  Only governments can raise the kind of funding that will really address the major challenges.  "Government have to do more because there’s more money there."  And many of these problems are so big that we need governments working together. 

(An aside — Last year: "it was governments that set up the regulatory processes that kept capitalism from destroying itself."  This year: Yeah, well maybe not so much.)

And this year I asked, in Why Do You Give?

… attracting philanthropic partnerships to support an organization’s efforts  … recognizes that governments are starved of resources but it does not address the root causes of this problem.  Shouldn’t philanthropy help get to the deeper roots of core problems, like governments being starved of resources even while a very few who control those businesses become ever wealthier? 

To what extent is the Clinton Global Initiative made necessary by the failings of our governmental institutions to address the needs of the people they are supposed to serve?  I write this in the shadow of the world financal crisis — how much more urgent will this question be next year?