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Q&A with Robert Harrison

Q&A with Robert Harrison

Starting out with the seemingly-simple premise of turning “good intentions into real actions and results”, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) was launched in 2005 by former US president Bill Clinton. Given the entirety of such a claim which encompasses collaborations between governments, organisations and individuals to take necessary and immediate action against socio-economic and environmental issues with emphasis on technology; what CGI has achieved in such a short time can be termed nothing short of monumental.
CGI facilitates and channels the capacities of individuals and organisations by providing its members with a global platform to meet and discuss global issues; devise solutions; and pledge commitments for action at its annual meetings held in September.
CEO of CGI Robert S. Harrison talks to Blue Chip about CGI’s ‘action areas’ and how CGI helps its members to accomplish their targets; its progress over a course of time and the setting up of action networks around the world; providing inspiration to youth organizations and the young leaders of tomorrow; and also, the potential benefits CGI has to offer to Pakistani organisations and individuals who want to establish a liaison with CGI.

In the four years since its inception, CGI has achieved a tremendous amount and is now touted to be the #1 conference for CEOs. What do you think this success can be attributed to?

Robert Harrison: “I think it’s a testament to President Clinton’s vision, as well as our incredible member base. When President Clinton founded CGI five years ago, he envisioned a meeting that was focused on action, not just talk, and thousands of people have been inspired by his call. Our members are some of the most influential people in the world; more than 125 current and former heads of state have attended CGI Annual Meetings, along with 15 Nobel Peace Prize winners, hundreds of CEOs, major philanthropists, and heads of the world’s most effective nongovernmental organisations. They all are committed to making a real difference in the world, and over the last five years, they have demonstrated impressive results, generating more than 1,700 commitments worth a total of $57 billion. These commitments have improved the lives of more than 220 million people in 170 countries.

As just one example, Cherie Blair met Hani Masri of Tomorrow’s Youth Organisation at our Annual Meeting in 2008. They developed a partnership, and this year, they launched a new programme for mentoring Palestinian women business owners in the West Bank. Procter & Gamble, another very dedicated member, has provided safe drinking water to 1 million children in Africa and 600,000 in Pakistan. (P&G’s commitment provides the clean water by distributing PUR water purification packets, which are made in Pakistan.)

As more people around the world have seen successes like these, more people have wanted to participate in this action-oriented community of global leaders. In fact, last year, despite the global recession and significant economic uncertainty, our members made more commitments than they had in any prior year. We think that shows that people are really thirsting for ways they can make a difference in the world.”

How would you consider the Fifth Annual Meeting (held on September 22-25, 2009) to be significant?

RH: “We always focus on what President Clinton believes are the four great “Global Challenges” – Economic Empowerment, Education, Environment & Energy, and Global Health. That creates a certain amount of continuity in our Annual Meeting programme from year to year. In 2009, however, we also focused on what President Clinton calls “the how question” – how can we most effectively make a difference? What are the strategies that have successfully pulled people out of poverty, expanded education, increased access to health care, or created a cleaner environment? Instead of simply focusing on the issues, we focused on the best ways to address those issues.

To do that, we established four Action Areas – Harnessing Innovation, Strengthening Infrastructure, Building Human Capital, and Financing an Equitable Future. Each Action Area is essentially a strategy that can be used to address any of the four Global Challenges, and we built the Annual Meeting programme around those four strategies. Members responded very positively to that – they liked getting concrete information that they could apply to their own work.

In 2009, we also highlighted an issue that is very important to President Clinton: the challenges faced by girls and women. Many corporations now see empowering girls and women as a critical part of their philanthropic and corporate social responsibility efforts – indeed, in some cases it has become a critical part of their business models. Goldman Sachs committed in 2009 to build upon its 10,000 Women Initiative and ExxonMobil is supporting technologies that will improve women’s lives. Coca-Cola committed to increasing the employment of women in its distribution chain in Africa.

In fact, members demonstrated so much interest in the topic that we decided to make Empowering Girls and Women one of our four Action Areas for 2010. The others are Enhancing Access to Modern Technology, Harnessing Human Potential, and Strengthening Market-Based Solutions. The programme for our 2010 Annual Meeting – which will be held this September 21-23 in New York – will be built around those four topics.”

How has CGI progressed over a period of time?

RH: “At first, we were “only” a meeting – I put “only” in quotes because putting on our meeting every year requires a tremendous amount of work. But every year, we have grown and evolved. Now, we offer a year-round membership experience. Throughout the year, we help our members build relationships with each other and develop partnerships to magnify the impact of their work. Using our database of over 1,700 commitments, we can also help our members identify best practices and develop innovative action plans to address specific issues within our Global Challenge areas.

In the last year, we have also launched Action Networks, which allow small groups of CGI members to meet and coordinate action around specific issues. For example, we have an Action Network of members who have been working in Haiti. Last fall, we convened a meeting of 30 CGI members in Port-au-Prince. The meeting was hosted by Denis O’Brien, founder of Digicel, a very dedicated member. Some great ideas to build Haiti back better came out of that meeting. For example, Haiti currently has no standardised teacher training or certification, so several members have developed a proposal for a new National Institute for Teacher Education. More than $1 million has been pledged to this effort, and staff is currently being recruited.

Of course, after the earthquake struck, our work in Haiti became even more important, and I am proud that we have been able to help many of our members make the connections necessary to deliver crucial relief services to Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas. Haiti is an unusual situation because of President Clinton’s particular focus on the region, but we are starting to see similar progress in other Action Networks focused on issues like Waste Management, Green Mobility, and Girls & Women.

Over the last five years, we have also expanded beyond the Annual Meeting. Since 2008, we have hosted CGI University (CGI U), an annual conference for college students, college presidents, and youth organisations that aims to inspire the next generation of activists. We also convened a regional meeting in Hong Kong called CGI Asia, which brought Asian leaders together to focus on issues particularly important to the region. We launched, an online portal where anyone can make a Commitment to Action by volunteering time, contributing money, or making in-kind donations to nongovernmental organisations. And recently, President Clinton announced CGI Lead, which is a programme for young, rising leaders from corporations, public institutions, and civil society.”

There are only a few Pakistan-based organisations that are members of CGI. How has their performance been so far and what do you think can be done to encourage more organisations to reach a level that would make them eligible for the prestigious CGI membership?

RH: “We are very proud of the Pakistan-based organisations that have participated in the CGI community. The Hashoo Foundation has made several excellent commitments – in 2007, for example, it committed to empower women in the Northern Areas and Chitral regions of Pakistan by expanding employment opportunities through beekeeping. The Layton Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust has committed to treating 50,000 eye patients per year – free of all charges – at the Free Secondary Eye Hospital in the earthquake-stricken area of Mansehra. Another member, Naya Jeevan, is providing health insurance to low-income Pakistani workers including household staff, waiters, and factory workers. Other members working in Pakistan include Heartfile, the Pakistan National Forum on Women’s Health, and the Afghan Institute of Learning.

We are strongly interested in working with more Pakistani organisations, particularly Pakistan-based corporations. We are known for attracting CEOs of large, multinational corporations, but many other business leaders from all over the world participate in the CGI community and attend our Annual Meetings. Pakistani organisations and companies interested in CGI membership should go to our website and contact our membership department.”

CGI operates on a commitment-based system. To date, there have been a large amount of commitments that have been fulfilled, helping millions of beneficiaries worldwide. How does CGI ensure that these commitments are fulfilled?

RH: “Of the 1,700 commitments that our members have made since 2005, approximately 300 have been completed. The rest are ongoing, multi-year commitments. We ask all our members to report back on the progress they make over time. They tell us what worked, what didn’t work, what projects had to be scaled back, what strategies had to be changed. This helps us track commitments, but it also helps us keep our membership base informed. Our members are very interested in learning as much as they can about what other organisations are doing, and about the lessons they have learned.

This year, we will be using these progress reports as a much larger part of our Annual Meeting programme because they help us answer “the how question”: how can our members make a difference? What are the best strategies for creating lasting change?”

CGI University is a brilliant initiative which encourages the involvement of the leaders of the future to come forward and deal with the issues being faced today. What is the next step for these young leaders?

RH: “The creativity, energy, and dedication we see coming from young people today is just astounding. President Clinton started CGI U because he believed that young people have tremendous potential to make a positive impact on our world. Now, as we prepare to host our third CGI U meeting in Miami, Florida, it has become increasingly clear that he was right. CGI U participants are distributing medical supplies, setting up microfinance initiatives, starting community gardens, developing recycling programmes, feeding hungry people, and building all sorts of innovative projects around the world. In our first two CGI U meetings, students developed more than 2,000 commitments. As just one example, a Pakistani-American student at Columbia University committed to distribute 250 low-cost, renewable solar lanterns in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Our goal is to provide students with knowledge and resources that will help them take those next steps that you mentioned. If a student comes to CGI U with an idea, we want him or her to leave inspired and equipped to turn that idea into action. If a student has a project that is already underway, we want to help him or her take that project to scale. Just in the last two years, we’ve already seen many of these student projects achieve remarkable results. CGI U members have made physical infrastructure improvements worth over $1.3 million to schools and libraries in places including South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, New Orleans, Nigeria, and Laos. They have engaged over 5,000 people in tutoring and mentoring projects, introduced more than 3,000 bicycles to communities in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, China, and the US, and distributed more than 16,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs.”

What kind of challenges have you encountered in your time as CEO of CGI?

RH: “When I arrived at CGI in 2007, the organisation consisted of an Annual Meeting. The first challenge was to expand CGI simultaneously into three new areas: CGI U, CGI International, and The second challenge was making sure that we did not lose focus during the past year of economic turmoil. We made sure we communicated to our members that the need was greater than ever. We were all very pleased with the fact that our membership in 2009, one year after the near collapse of the global financial system, was the strongest ever and made more commitments by the time of the Annual Meeting than in any prior year.”

Has CGI’s success surpassed your expectations? What are the plans for the future? 

RH: “All of us at CGI have been very pleased with the growth of the enterprise into a year-round series of programmes. We’re looking forward to building on that success with our newest venture for young global leaders, CGI Lead. Given President Clinton’s never-ending desire to expand opportunities for people to give back, I have no doubt that we will have many more new initiatives in the years to come.”

How long have you been at CGI? What were you involved with prior to this engagement? Please tell us a bit about yourself.

RH: “I am in my third year as CEO of CGI, but I have worked for President Clinton at the Clinton Foundation for a total of five years. Previously, I was executive director of the Foundation’s childhood obesity initiative, and before that I headed a task force investigating issues of access to water and sanitation in the developing world. Previously, I spent 22 years on Wall Street as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and a corporate lawyer at Davis, Polk & Wardwell.”

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