Nearing its second decade, how will CGI evolve?

A panel of speakers during the Clinton Global Initiative in 2011. The CGI is a prestigious development organization with members ranging from small grass-roots organizations to some of the best known names in the world. Photo by: Alfredo Guerrero / Gobierno Federal / CC BY-NC-SA

During his presidency, Bill Clinton spent much of his time speaking to world leaders, captains of industry, celebrities and concerned citizens about their solutions to the world’s intractable problems.

Ideas were shared, but tangible and public commitments to take action were uncommon.

In 2005, four years after he left office, Clinton established the Clinton Global Initiative to bring together global leaders to explore and implement innovative solutions to the world’s development problems.

CGI, an initiative of the newly named Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, has since grown into a highly prestigious development organization with members ranging from small grass-roots organizations to some of the best known names in the world. Of their total members, about half are businesses — each of whom pays $20,000 per year — about one-fourth are nongovernmental organizations, and the rest are philanthropists, governments and various other individuals or organizations with interests in global development.

CGI’s annual meetings, held every September in New York, have become a kind of Davos for the global development community, attracting world leaders, development thinkers and practitioners, celebrities, corporate chiefs and aspiring do-gooders. Over the years, the meetings have included more than 150 heads of state and 20 Nobel laureates.

The meeting is designed to be a catalyst that brings such unlikely figures together, along with hundreds of others, so that they can work on solving the world’s development challenges through what CGI calls “commitments.” (In 2012, Devex made a CGI commitment to build Devex Impact – an online resource that focuses on the intersection of the private sector and global development.)

At the meeting in 2012, the likes of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could be found, alongside singer Barbara Streisand, actor Michael Douglas, and former U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Next week’s 2013 meeting will convene more than 1,000 CGI members under the theme “Mobilizing for Impact.” This year’s participant list is no less diverse or impressive: President Barack Obama, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Bono, to name a few.

Now almost a decade old, more than a dozen global development leaders interviewed by Devex credit CGI for its special cross-sector convening power that, very early on, helped breed new partnerships for development.

At the same time, because CGI maintains a business model that is unusual in the world of international development, some question if CGI should exercise more rigor to make sure that financial commitments can be traced to development outcomes.

Fostering partnership

On Dec. 3, 2008, a broadly smiling Eoin O’Shea, the chief operating officer in Asia Pacific for Credit Suisse, took the stage with former President Clinton to announce that his corporation was partnering with the World Food Program to provide a $250,000 grant “to sustain the WFP’s ongoing work in Indonesia,” according to Credit Suisse.

“The goal of this commitment was to improve the health and nutrition situation, and create a healthy learning environment for over 9,000 school children and 384 teachers in one of the most vulnerable school districts in Indonesia, over the period of one year,” states a summary in CGI’s commitments database.

The December 2008 commitment had a one-year duration and in an April 2010 progress update in CGI’s database, the World Food Program reported that food and supplies had been delivered to 80 schools in the project area and teachers were tasked with distributing it under a system monitored by WFP. Deworming and teacher training was also conducted.

According to Paul Angwin, who ran the corporate philanthropy program for Credit Suisse in Asia at the time, the commitment included both the release of the funds by Credit Suisse and the results on the ground, which actually exceeded its targets by assisting 10,000 children.

Angwin admitted that the prospect of having the company’s senior executives onstage with Clinton was a motivating factor, but the assistance to the children — which was the priority — was delivered.

“As soon as the commitment was finalized, we did the fund transfer,” he said. “It was run by the book. We got letters from Bill Clinton thanking us with his signature on it. We got the World Food Program to report on the program. It was very tightly orchestrated and there was good follow up.”

Commitment to action

CGI has exhibited extraordinary success in creating partnerships, like the one between Credit Suisse and WFP, and drawing attention to key development issues.

According to CGI sources, the organization maintains a portfolio of at least 2,300 commitments in more than 180 countries, totaling an estimated $73.5 billion and touching the lives of 400 million people.

CGI is not a funding organization, like the World Bank, and it is not an implementing agency, like WFP. It is unique in its mission and structure.

“We are really a platform, and hopefully a catalytic one,” CGI Director of Commitments Elsa Palanza said. “I like to think of our members engaging in sort of a marketplace of ideas with one another. Essentially we have these incredible organizations from all over the planet that get together, largely convened around our annual meeting.”

The international development sector has no shortage of idea-generating marketplaces, but one that turns those ideas into action is distinctive.

Two factors make CGI different, say global development community leaders. One, the forum openly welcomes unconventional development players such as the private sector, wealthy individuals and big names to supplement the funding and activities of traditional development organizations such as international aid donors and NGOs. And two, there are these formal and public commitments to action.

“CGI deserves real credit for identifying the value of tri-sector partnerships for development back in 2005,” said Daniel F. Runde, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has spent his career working at the intersection of the private sector and global development.

Today, partnerships for development are the name of the game. And when Clinton established CGI, he seemed to have anticipated some of the global development trends and alignments playing out today.

Most major bilateral and multilateral donors, once reluctant to share the global development agenda, have now established offices dedicated to engaging the private sector.

At the same time, companies are steadily moving beyond basic corporate social responsibility to become more active in socio-economic development projects in the areas which they work. They are also connecting their core business to specific development outcomes.

According to the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity, American corporations alone contributed almost $8 billion to developing countries in 2010 — an amount double Australia’s total bilateral aid contributions that year.

Further, both international donors and the private sector have steadily advanced their relationship with international and local nongovernmental organizations — a trend evident during the CGI meetings. Back in 2005, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, Clinton called the rise of NGOs one of the “most remarkable things that have happened since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

“CGI was a breath of fresh air on the responsible business scene when it launched in 2005,” said Gib Bulloch, executive director of Accenture Development Partnerships who attends the annual CGI meeting in New York City.

“What we didn’t need was another high-level conference to debate the problems. By demanding tangible commitments, CGI was able to differentiate those who wanted to act from those who wanted to talk. In that sense, its business model as a convener of commitments has indeed been effective,” Bulloch stressed.

Open questions

At the core of CGI’s work are three criteria that a proposal must meet in order for it to become a CGI “commitment.” These are defined as plans by members that are new, specific and measurable.

According to Palanza, CGI’s director of commitments, the criteria for what is considered “new” is fairly broad. “New means that it needs to be new for them, beyond what they do in their daily world,” she revealed. “So in the case of an NGO that might be taking a development project they have on the ground and scaling it up, or engaging new partners, or working in a new area.”

Amanda Chen, the associate director of CGI’s commitments department, clarifies that “new doesn’t have to mean it’s never been thought of before, it’s not that it can’t have already been started as a pilot. But there needs to be some element of additionality that is brought in by the process of making a commitment.”

As for the “specific” aspect, Palanza noted that a commitment must be tangible and have a time frame. It cannot be a general goal or aspiration.

The third criterion — “measurable” — presents something of a challenge for CGI, as it does other international development organizations across the world.

Some development leaders point to CGI’s focus on inputs and outputs over outcome — or the impact of the work being done. An oft-cited suggestion for CGI is to apply more rigor and follow up on which commitments have delivered against their original goals and which have failed, increasing member accountability.

Unlike many development organizations, which have a mechanism for reporting the performance of a project, CGI does not provide a database or listing that includes commitments which have faced problems. A detailed analysis of the CGI website showed only successful or ongoing commitments.

“Other than the platform and the unique convening power, which is certainly interesting, the actual development follow-through is very much an open question. There’s a bit of an optional feel — why don’t you keep us posted?” Runde acknowledged.

As public sector aid budgets tighten, development organizations are being pressured to squeeze the maximum amount of impact out of every dollar spent, making measurement and evaluation one of the dominant trends in development these days. Accordingly, prominent donors and implementers, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (itself a major donor to the Clinton Foundation), have made measurement core to their business.

Still, there is a long-standing debate across the international development community about effectiveness of existing measurement and evaluation approaches as well as how much money should be spent on them.

Earlier global development initiatives, like the U.N. Global Compact or even the Millennium Development Goals, started out without much accountability, but that gradually evolved as they were mainstreamed and adopted.

CGI officials are quick to highlight that any questions over the effectiveness of their projects should be asked in the context of CGI’s mission and structure.

“I think it goes back to our genesis,” Palanza said. “If we had set out to be a massive organization that had a robust monitoring and evaluation arm and we were going to go out and police every single individual and we weren’t doing a good job at that, that would be one question. But again that was never really the intent of this organization.”

According to Palanza, most CGI members have tracking systems in place and those existing mechanisms are used to evaluate the commitment.

“Whatever they use to measure that particular project is something that we’re happy to receive as their metric, as long as they are clear,” she said. “We wouldn’t want to force everyone into a different kind of measuring system or hold them accountable to a different metric.”

She said that CGI does come back to members if it feels the proposed metrics are too vague, but generally CGI works to assist members rather than police them.

In the case of the WFP support in Indonesia, Credit Suisse reported the commitment as the delivery of the funding, but CGI included the on-the-ground impact of the project.

The current system has worked for the South Africa-based Ubuntu Education Fund, which has been featured during CGI meetings and was recently visited by a CGI delegation.

“We believe that CGI’s decision to feature Ubuntu is based, in part, on our transparent monitoring and evaluation process. We submit quarterly progress reports to CGI, highlighting both the successes and challenges that we experienced while fulfilling our commitment,” Ubuntu founder Jacob Lief contended. “These updates analyze our impact, outline progress on long-term strategic goals, and discuss methodology.”

“Our intent wholly is to support the work of our members,” Palanza stressed. “It all goes back to this idea of inspiring and hopefully moving them along the continuum to do more and better work. The last thing we want to do is provide a barrier to entry for people to be able to do more and better work. That’s why the metrics or the measurements are all self-reported.”

If a commitment is not successful, CGI does not take punitive action against a member. Palanza noted that it is often not the fault of the member when a development project that is part of a commitment has problems.

“I think projects fail for the same reasons that international development projects fail anywhere around the planet,” she said. “We see people run up against funding challenges. We see people come up against instability or risk. We see legislation change in a country, which prevents them from doing their work. There is a laundry list of these sorts of things that prevent people from moving forward.”

Accenture’s Bulloch acknowledged this reality and sees little wrong if CGI did begin reporting stalled or failed projects. “It’s inevitable that some will have performed better than others, some succeeded others failed. Even the latter provide an opportunity for learning and improvement,” he said.

Though CGI does not have the staff or capacity to audit the veracity of the claims by members that they have fulfilled a commitment, Palanza said that the high profile nature of the organization assists in the process.

“We do have this big stage and that’s where the media attention and the spotlight that is shown on these projects is actually an asset to us in holding people accountable,” she said.

The next 10 years

In forming CGI, Clinton either predicted or helped determine a changing mindset among business leaders and the world’s wealthiest individuals that has raised the profile of corporate citizenship and philanthropy. Increasingly, these influencers are getting off the sidelines, opening up new development funding streams and opportunities.

In this sense, CGI can be compared with another powerful, good-faith philanthropy movement — the “Giving Pledge.” Started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the Giving Pledge asks the world’s wealthiest to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charity. It does not have any strict monitoring mechanism to hold pledgers accountable.

According to the Giving Pledge website, the initiative’s goal is to “inspire conversations, discussions, and action … and bring together those committed to this kind of giving to exchange knowledge on how to do this in the best possible way.” The Giving Pledge also touts the networking and strategizing that takes place around its annual meeting in May.

In the past few weeks, major media outlets reported on some of the Clinton Foundation’s management and operational challenges since its founding, eliciting an official response from Clinton. The articles raised questions over the foundation’s leadership, funding and future in the context of a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016.

Even as CGI’s parent organization becomes a focus of political attention in the lead up to the next U.S. presidential election, development leaders interviewed by Devex insist that CGI has a key and ongoing role to play in global development.

“New technologies and forms of financing disrupt traditional roles, structures and actors,” Bulloch asserted. “CGI is extremely well placed at the nexus of the private sector, government, and civil society as the interests and solutions of each sector converge. It has carved out a distinct niche as one of the places to be on the annual development calendar.”

Pete Troilo contributed reporting to this article.

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About the author

  • Floyd Whaley

    Floyd is a Devex correspondent and journalist based in Manila. He covers the Philippines for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. Floyd also operates Asia Editorial Services, a consultancy that provides writing and editing services to development organizations.