Clinton Global Initiative


Last night, Tuesday, was the opening plenary session and welcome for the Clinton Global Initiative fifth annual meeting. There were a thousand members of the press wedged into the basement of the New York Sheraton hotel, and a thousand special guests upstairs in the Metropolitan Ballroom…and at least a thousand more security and secret service.

After metal detectors and security wands and pat downs, I was finally admitted to the bowels of the building. The technology is impressive with several Wi-Fi channels and the conference even has it’s own closed messaging system, so Barbra Streisand can tell Brad Pitt his haircut looks great and it’ll stay between them.

The CGI is an annual gathering of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and charitable orgs, business leaders, and world leaders (the rooms are lousy with presidents and prime ministers) who gather to make specific commitments to projects to better the world. This was the birthplace, in past years, of projects like Matt Damon’s water program (, expanding this year to Haiti), the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative, and so many more. In the five years since beginning there have been 1,400 commitments made (participants are required to make commitments to existing projects or commit to creating new projects), valued at $46 billion dollars, and impacting the lives of 200 million people in 150 countries. This year’s meeting will give birth to 30 more of these programs.

Bill Clinton takes to the stage in his purple tie and half-glasses, looking tired and rundown. A red and grey woven bracelet peeks out from the French cuffs of his shirt as he begins addressing the crowd. Behind him on the dais are perfectly aligned Aeron chairs waiting for the panel for tonight’s talk. Everything is blue, with the CGI logo and signage on all four walls of the wide room.

Clinton is impressed that in spite of a worldwide economic collapse, this year’s meeting is better attended than ever before. He is talking to the auspicious heads of state and the video feed camera operators are expert at picking celebs out of the crowd: Demi Moore, Fran Drescher, Matt Damon, Anthony Edwards, Ben Stiller…

The gift bags (celebs get gift bags, or “swag bags” every time they walk down the street, filled with t-shirts and logo-branded pens and paperweights). Instead of spending money on more swag this year, CGI has given the guests empty bags this year. Each member has been given 200 points that they can commit at the “Give Back Centers” and kiosks throughout the meeting halls. They can use a point or two to donate any number of things like solar flashlights or water purifying straws, shoes or schoolbooks, to projects around the world. Participants also connect with other commitment programs to extend their reach and effectiveness.

It’s a night of overwhelming statistics and even more overwhelming inspiration and hope. The president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, CEOs of Coca Cola and WalMart, and Australia’s Prime Minister were led deftly by Clinton—who clearly never forgets a fact or anecdote—through stories of struggle and success. The overarching message is the struggle to convince governments, who don’t want to be convinced, that changing systems for innovation and sustainability (especially in regards to energy) doesn’t destroy financial systems, but makes economies stronger.

Barack Obama was stuck in traffic—all of New York is snagged in traffic from this event and the United Nations General Assembly also happening this week. When he arrives, jogging on stage rescuing Bill, who was vamping, he is funny, easy, and streamlines big ideas and boils them down. “You don’t have to hold a public office to be a public servant. That’s the beauty of service—anyone can do it…and EVERYone should try.”

The final lesson I learned—never try to leave a hotel at the same time as the President of the United States. You get nowhere fast.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] people in 150 countries. This year’s meeting will give birth to 30 more of these programs – more by Andrew Mersman over at Passport Magazine/ Change by Doing […]


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