Former President Bill Clinton, speaking to the InterAction Forum on Tuesday, criticized the current administration’s proposed cuts to the United States foreign aid budget but also sought to bring context to the political moment. He encouraged global development professionals to continue working to increase the positive forces of global interdependence, while decreasing the negative impacts.
“We have never had more potential to spread hope through real learning, through real doing, through the alleviation of pain and the provision of opportunity,” he said. “But we are passing through a perfectly predictable period of reaction to the rapid rate of change economically and socially all over the world, which leaves a lot people feeling left out and left behind economically, socially and even psychologically,” Clinton said.
Clinton described today’s environment and politics as a “resurgence of the oldest of all social reactions” — a zero-sum game between “us” and “them.”
But, he said, while the moment may be challenging, it also presents opportunities “which can best be seized by diverse groups working together, breaking down barriers that had previously separated them,” he said. “Diverse groups make better decisions than lone geniuses.”
He urged NGOs to build coalitions, engage with the public and clearly define roles and strategies. He described U.S. aid spending as “a little bit of money doing an outsize amount of good.”
Lessons from the past
Coalition building can be a powerful tool to address challenges, Clinton said, recalling recovery efforts in Indonesia following a 2004 tsunami. The research and analysis that resulted from that experience drew lessons that are still guiding disaster response today. Coalitions of NGOs, governments, donors and local people worked together to help tackle the challenges, address local priorities and improve economies in the long term.
“We're stuck with one another and so the job of every thinking person on planet earth is to maximize the benefits and minimize the dangers of the most interdependent age in human history.”— Bill Clinton, former U.S. president
That sentiment resonated with Nancy Wilson, the chief executive officer of Relief International, which has embedded local participation and capacity building into its operations in fragile settings.
She was recently in South Sudan, and said she has been thinking about countries in analogous situations, what lessons might apply, and what the trajectory to stability might look like. Relief International works with partners across sectors to build civic skills that help build local accountability and local government, she said. In Somalia, that strategy has helped create pockets of stability that are allowing people to think about the country as a whole.
Clinton also spoke of climate change, and the plight especially of low-lying island nations in the Pacific, which are already under threat.
“To them the denial of the problem strikes them as unbelievable,” he said. “The truth is we are condemned to share the future whether we like it or not, no matter how much we badmouth people that don’t look like us, don't think like us. We're stuck with one another and so the job of every thinking person on planet earth is to maximize the benefits and minimize the dangers of the most interdependent age in human history.”
A role for development
Clinton suggested that the NGO community focus and start a conversation on how to get things done — not just what it will look like, which can be the focus of politics, he said.
“The world would be better served if we, as an NGO movement, could convince governments to focus more on the how question too. I find that the how question tends to be a unifying one,” he said.
Clinton spoke of his experience watching the “how” conversation change perceptions across a variety of divisions in the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, a partnership between the Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson presidential centers. The program brings together a diverse group of leaders from across the political spectrum to work toward solving problems.
Clinton also stressed the importance of telling the story of how far the world has come. Despite bad headlines, the trend lines are pretty good, he said, using a phrase he has repeated before.
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Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of CARE, said she sees that storytelling as part of her organization’s role, in addition to programmatic implementation. Advocacy with citizens and politicians includes discussing the U.S. leadership’s important role and disproportionate impact, she said.
President Donald Trump’s budget recommendations are concerning, Nunn said, though she has been “heartened by the continued impulse for generosity and compassion” from people and politicians.
A survey released Tuesday for World Refugee Day by Save the Children, bears that out. About 80 percent of the 500 Americans polled agreed that all refugee children deserve an education and more than 70 percent agreed that it is important to help refugees abroad and in the U.S., according to the organization.
“The challenge in the U.S. is if that’s the right thing to do, then what’s the U.S. role,” said Carolyn Miles, the CEO of Save the Children, adding that it applies to other challenges as well.
Clinton also emphasized the need to clarify roles in making change. “In addition to doing our job better, if you want to live in a world of positive interdependence we have to more clearly define what governments should do, what the NGO sector should do and what the private sector can do,” he said.
“So what I urge you to do is not to grow weary, is not to be discouraged,” he said. “Every time you save a life … every time you do anything in this space, you’ll increase the probability of getting the necessary public support and hasten the day we give up on ‘us’ and ‘them.’’’