By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
NEW YORK, Sept. 22 -- Preparing to open his annual philanthropy gathering here against the backdrop of historic upheaval on Wall Street, former president Bill Clinton expressed concern Monday that the economic downturn could undermine major charitable investments around the world just when help is particularly needed.
Clinton called on businesses, foundations and other benefactors to increase their giving to combat climate change, alleviate poverty and expand access to education and health care in the developing world, saying that philanthropy "is even more important over the next two or three years than it would otherwise have been."
"Around the world, the thing that I worry most about with other stock markets going down and the American market here is that it will reduce the availability of capital . . . to do things that otherwise make good sense," Clinton said in an interview with national philanthropy reporters.
Clinton's comments came at the start of a significant week for philanthropy. The fourth annual Clinton Global Initiative opens Tuesday, bringing together hundreds of corporate chiefs, heads of state, humanitarians and celebrities such as U2 singer Bono. Participants must pledge at least $20,000 each to a charitable commitment to attend.
With the economy weighing heavily on their minds, attendees are expected to announce commitments to renewable energy, as well as international health-care, education and anti-poverty initiatives.
Meanwhile, Microsoft founder Bill Gates will address a special session of the U.N. General Assembly and announce new initiatives by his philanthropic foundation to help eradicate extreme poverty, hunger and disease.
At the Clinton gathering, more than 200 charitable commitments could be announced this week, including significant programs in the areas of energy and the environment, said Robert Harrison, the conference's chief executive and a former partner at Goldman Sachs.
"A lot of these guys are looking at this as long-term," Harrison said. "It's not the case that we only developed wonderful commitments six months ago and in the last three weeks it's frozen. People have continued to develop excellent commitments."
The conference's agenda shifted in recent days to add a panel featuring former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, now chairman of Citigroup, to examine the long-term economic trends and their impact on foreign aid, said Jane Wales, who chairs the Global Philanthropy Forum and directs the Clinton conference's poverty program.
Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said the U.S. financial crisis will affect not only the economies of countries that American philanthropists are working to develop but also the capacity of foreign governments such as Great Britain's to assist.
"Philanthropy's value is quite significant at these moments," Rodin said, "not because we can replace the aid dollars that governments give, but because philanthropy tends to be more risk-taking, more innovative."
Concerned about the effect of the weakening economy on the social safety net for U.S. workers, the Rockefeller Foundation in July announced a $70 million effort, the Campaign for American Workers, to award grants aimed at developing affordable health coverage and increasing retirement savings.
In the interview Monday, Clinton emphasized access to education as critical to controlling population growth.
"If you put all the girls in the world in school and you gave all the young women access to the labor market, that's the right thing you can do that cuts across all religious, cultural and political lines that would actually slow the world's population growth, because the more young women have access to education and work, the later they marry, the later their first child is born," Clinton said.
He also highlighted the work he did to help broker a deal between pharmaceutical companies and African countries to lower prices of antiretroviral medicines.
"We've cut good deals for these medicines," Clinton said. "So the primary impediment for everybody getting proper care for AIDS and malaria now is no longer the medicine. It is the absence of effective health-care systems in rural areas."
Since leaving the White House eight years ago, Clinton has strived to fashion himself as the world's philanthropist in chief. His supporters say he is changing the way people think about giving by rallying the mighty and modest alike. But some scholars and other leaders said his tenure in the field has been too short to measure his impact.
"He brings great political influences, great personal charisma and some star quality to the work," said Harvey P. Dale, a professor of philanthropy and nonprofit law at New York University. "Whether the philanthropy in turn ultimately has 'impact' is always a very complicated question."
Clinton's involvement with philanthropy extends beyond the spotlight of his annual conference. Clinton's foundation spent about $135 million last year on chronic global health problems such as HIV/AIDS, as well as climate change and hunger initiatives.
After the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Clinton and former president George H.W. Bush helped raise millions for recovery efforts.
Larry Brilliant, director of Google's corporate giving, said Clinton's effort "creates the idea that you may be successful as a chief executive of your company, you may be successful as the president or prime minister of your country, but if you do not think of philanthropy as part of your job description, you are not cool, you are not good, you are not doing your job, you are not modern."