My takeaway from the Clinton Global Initiative so, what's new?

By, Jean-Louis Robadey, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Social Innovation Practice, Senior Vice President
Oct 4, 2010 9:00 AM ET

Innovation Conversations

I had the privilege of attending the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in person last week.  Much has been said about this meeting already.  On this blog, my colleagues Seema Bhende and Caroline Sanderson did a masterful job earlier this week analyzing the vast online conversation  that CGI was able to generate, the top Tweeter influencers, the top re-tweets (very useful if you want to learn how to extend your own influence online!), and the key conversation topics.   

Today, I want to share some personal reflections from this meeting.  I won’t focus so much on its main topics and content – a lot has been said about it already by people who are more knowledgeable than I am about clean cookstoves and financial services for the poor!  Rather, I want to focus on how, from my perspective, CGI is helping change the way in which we approach global development.  Among much doom and gloom, CGI is a wonderful example of how we can think differently, creatively, and collaboratively about ways to address some of the major issues of our time. 

How so?

Entrepreneurship, innovation – and permission to fail!  Innovate, innovate, innovate! One striking feature of the Clinton Global Initiative is its focus on innovation, entrepreneurship, and action.  This is part of a broader trend, of course, which started years ago with visionary organizations such as Ashoka, the Skoll Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation. These organizations were among the first to call on all of us to move beyond mere giving, charity and philanthropy.  CGI is helping to breathe new air in a sector that had grown somewhat stale, old and tired over the years.  It was very inspirational to experience, first-hand, the power of innovation and entrepreneurship to address some of the world’s most pressing problems. From Jaqueline Novogratz, CEO of the Acumen Fund to Ory Okolloh, founder of Ushahidi; from Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca Cola, to Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA, the call to action at CGI was clear:  try new things; take risks;  innovate;  develop new models;  and most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail!

Power to the Poor!  We are used to thinking of people living in poverty as vulnerable, disenfranchised, passive recipients of charity and assistance.  Of course, noone can deny the fact that in many cases poor people need basic assistance.  At the same time, many voices are now calling for a different approach: poor people are more than powerless, passive recipients of assistance; they can be powerful agents of change.  They understand their conditions. They know, in many cases, what the solutions are.  And if given the right tools and techniques, they have the capacity to become positive change agents.  Among the many companies and organizations present at CGI, Procter & Gamble and Tata Sons are two examples of companies that have embraced this view, and are working with poor people and marginalized communities on innovative product design and distribution. Many others – for-profits and non-profits alike — understand that there is a very different paradigm out there: poor people do, indeed, have the power to be producers of social and economic value, and we can help make this happen by creating the right conditions for them to exercise this power!

Unlikely partnerships.  Strange bedfellows.  Partnerships have clearly come of age.  The issues we need to confront, and the solutions we need, are just too big, complex and multi-faceted for any one company or organization, no matter how large, rich and influential, to tackle it alone.  It was very humbling, as well as energizing, to hear this message come from organizations as influential as WalMart, Cisco, the State Department, or the Gates Foundation, in sectors as diverse as information access, water sustainability, or girls’ education.  As a result, new cross-sector partnerships are being created that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  Two in particular stood out for me — the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and Partners for a New Beginning – because of their clear focus, breadth of ambition, and depth of alliances.  Beyond that though, CGI really brought home the very notion that partnerships and new business models ARE a big part of the solution, and that leading organizations, rich and small, commercial, governmental or non-profit, have now embraced partnerships as a core element of how they operate and make a difference in the world.

Scale, scale, scale.  And sustainability.  What a difference a few years make.  Up until recently, much of the talk in global development was centered around individual programs and projects.  At CGI, the focus has clearly moved beyond the impact of individual projects.  The focus is on scale. Replication. Sustainability.  From Room to Read’s 10,000 Bilingual Libraries to Habitat for Humanity’s Global Housing Microfinance Fund and SNV’s Impact Investing for Small and Medium Enterprises, among many others, the focus of most ventures featured at CGI was to find new strategies to achieve scale and sustainability – and to avoid reinventing the wheel in the process!

The power of influence.  Finally – and this is of course very dear to our heart here at Waggener Edstrom! – CGI is a further demonstration of the power of influence through smart communication and engagement. As I was witnessing the dialogue – online and offline – that CGI was generating, it became clear to me that CGI isn’t really about the individual innovations, solutions and partnerships that are featured there – although of course that’s a big part of the story.  The real impact of CGI is to act as a catalyst of conversations, on a large scale, and inspire others, in turn, to join forces and contribute. Nowhere was the power of influence more visible than in the role President Bill Clinton himself plays as CGI: he is the consummate convener, as apt as ever at using the power of media, dialogue and relationships – online and offline — to extend the reach and impact of the innovations featured at CGI.

The Clinton Global Initiative is part of a broader movement that is redefining the way we think about global development.  This goes beyond finding new solutions to address global poverty and build healthier and more sustainable communities.  It was very inspiring to see at CGI that these five elements – entrepreneurship and innovation; empowerment; partnerships; scale and influence –are a fundamental part of the solution!