"Ask not what your country can do for you..." Elvis at the GPF April 13

Sorry for the lousy photo - it was taken with what serves as a pretty good phone.

Bill Clinton closed the GPF. As an unabashed liberal, I'll fess up to my bias right up front. I've missed having a President who can not only speak English, but do it well, think on his feet, and proudly admit that he's still learning. Again, my wireless dropped during the session so I am recreating this from notes. Check out fora.tv for the video - next week some time.

He asked the audience the five questions he says he asks everyone. Here they are:

  1. What is the fundamental nature of the 21st century?
  2. Is this a good or a bad thing?
  3. What about it needs to change?
  4. What are the necessary steps to make those changes?
  5. Who needs to take those steps?
Then he answered them. Clinton thinks the fundamental nature of the 21st Century is interdependence - within and across communities, nations, religions, technologies, you name it.

Is this good or bad? Its both, he argued. Clearly, he said, pointing around to the Google campus, some have done extremely well in these times. But most have not benefited (he recited some extraordinary facts about global poverty, health insurance, hunger).

It is also bad because the current world is "unequal, unstable and unsustainable." On this last point he spoke not just of the threats of climate change but to a time where we will all live with the accumulated effects rapidly depleting resources matched with rapid population growth. Todays 6 billion humans will be 9 billion by 2050, yet we are depleting topsoil, forests, and other species at unprecedented rates. He quoted both pessimists and optimists on how much oil is left on the planet to be extracted, He averaged this toward the optimists, and noted that they put their best guess at about 100 years. Then he noted that the oldest city on earth, Jericho, is about 10,000 years old. So, he concluded, we have 1% of the full time of human civilization left to figure out how to live without oil.

What changes need to be made? Clinton described them as the need to create a set of integrated communities with empowered people. Every successful community shares three characteristics:
  1. Everyone in the community shares in the sense that they have full opportunity to participate to their fullest ability,
  2. everyone shares responsibility for the endeavor, and
  3. everyone has a genuine sense of belonging.
(Here, President Clinton sidetracked for a moment to recommend Amartya Sen's work on identity and violence, and I got the sense that what he would really enjoy would be leading a graduate seminar on the economist's work.)

He then went on to discuss the practical implications of the above framework, "In an integrated society it is impossible to kill, jail or occupy everyone who disagrees with you. You need to practice politics and build partnerships."

The good news, he said, answering his fourth question, is that we know how to do this - we know how to practice politics, use diplomacy, and build more partnerships. We know that government has a role. We know that humanitarian NGOs have a role. And - paean to the assembled crowd - that individuals and business and philanthropic leaders have a role. We know how to educate people, how to provide health care, how to farm and produce, and how to thrive and grow our economies without depleting our energy sources.

Who then, should do this work, asked the President. All of us. Private citizens have more power now than ever to make a difference. No one should wait for someone else to do it. Here, his call to action took a notable turn away from that of his oft-identified idol, President Kennedy. Kennedy has urged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," and galvanized a generation dedicated to public service, the creation of the peace corps, and other notable public citizen actions.

Clinton, on the other hand, emphasized the private citizen/organization's capacity to make change. He spoke of his own foundation's work organizing markets for public goods - helping to shift pharmaceutical prices and access, negotiating deals that shifted companies from "high margin, low volume, uncertain payment" to "low margin, high volume, and certain payment." This brought the price of drugs to fight HIV and AIDS down by factors of 5, 6 and 7 in various parts of the world. The challenge now - to organize the markets of other public goods, including limited carbon use, education, and food. Even when asked what he might do if he gets a "do-over" as America's first man, he promoted the role he would play in partnering with the private and independent sector.

I left President Clinton's speech, and the GPF, inspired and full of new information. The idea of organizing markets for public good, which I championed in my 2004 book; the role of business practices in philanthropy, the blending of sectors, and the rise of social entrepreneurs and more rational capital markets are critical ideas. The folks at this conference clearly believe them, are practicing them, and advancing our knowledge and thinking about how to solve real problems (using all available tools).

I have to admit, I wonder if we can go too far in this direction. President Clinton was exhorting this generation to ask a fundamentally different question than President Kennedy had; at this point in time it would have to framed as, "Ask not what the globe can do for you; ask what you can do for the globe."

But the answers we come up with can not only come from the private and independent sector, we must not expect that philanthropy and social enterprise will solve the problems that our governments have failed to solve. Yes, they must be grown, recognized, and actively involved. But we must develop those resources and engage our governments, our public agencies, and our elected representatives. All three sectors must be contribute -all three sectors must be part of our "integrated society." That is my answer to President Clinton's 5th question.


Paul Botts said...

Interesting stuff. A couple of quick reactions:

-- Clinton seems in some respects to be reasoning from outdated knowledge. For example human population growth has been slowing dramatically worldwide and demographers now believe that from a peak around 2040 our global population will then begin a permanent decline. We are now depleting forests and topsoil at slower rates than we were a generation ago. The number of people living in the UN's definition of extreme poverty has now been halved in a single generation and will be halved again by 2020. Etc.

-- if "our governments have failed to solve" various key problems, then why would we want to keep seeing government as part of the solution to those problems? Isn't the classic definition of insanity to keep pursuing that which has repeatedly failed?

Lucy Bernholz said...

I don't think governments have consistently failed - I think this point of view which dominates at philanthropy and social entrepreneur conferences is flat out wrong. I think we as societies have failed because we expect one sector to solve problems that - usually - the other two are busy creating.

Working across sectors - planning, budgeting, accounting for, implementing solutions - thats the only way out of the messes we've created. Problem is getting anyone to trust, work with, cede roles to, balance, hold accountable, expect, defer to, each other.

The insanity of doing the same thing over and over - I think applies to these conversations/conferences - which promote one sector over others, one set of solutions over others, and act as if their solution is the one that is really going to work, this time.