“Inventing Fire for the Second Time”: Convergence, Collaboration, and Compromise at CGI 2009

As you all know, Jos, Vanessa and I have been attending the 5th Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initative this week in Manhattan. We’ve put up several posts already about the event, including coverage of the opening session, photos from the first day, and coverage of Wednesday morning’s Plenary Session on Investing in Women and Girls.
I’d like to offer a different kind of coverage here, one that tries to understand if and how the broader thematic goal of the Meeting- namely, cross-sector participation in addressing the world’s problems- works, and how it will ultimately affect women and girls globally.
In other words- Can business interests and NGO interests ever align productively? Can the World Bank really make positive contributions to social change, given its rather horrific history of debt-mongering and culturally insensitive politics? Or are these interests mutually exclusive, in constant battle over zero-sum resources and therefore doomed to clash? CGI suggests convergence and collaboration can benefit all. I ask- what kinds of compromise on women’s issues does such an ambitious mandate demand?


Wednesday’s session in Investing in Women and Girls embodies this question perfectly, and so I’ll use it as an example here as a foundation for discussing the broader implications of collaborations across sectors.
The session featured a 6-person panel of various corporate executives, NGO founders, and government officials. It was moderated by the fabulous Diane Sawyer, and sought to address solutions to problems of women’s economic marginalization across the world.
Cross-sector collaboration in finding a solution for the plight of the world’s women was a recurring theme in the panel.
Melanne Verveer, the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in the U.S. Department of State, said, for example, “This panel mirrors what we have to do, because I believe that we’re at a tipping point… there is a growing global awareness on the part of many sectors- representatives of top companies, an individual of the world bank, and NGO’s- this is the model we’ve got to bring to the table- the CGI model.” Diane Sawyer echoed these sentiments (quite elegantly, I should add) in both her introduction and conclusion, referencing a “great convergence that propels history forward at an unexpected pace,” and even predicting a surge of global change based on the diversity of participants’ sector backgrounds: “Men, women, corporations, NGOs, government- if we can harness this energy, we’ll have invented fire for the second time.
These comments are on-par with the messaging surrounding much of the conference, implying that converging and collaborating leaders across sectors is both a relatively simple solution and a momentous one, much as the discovery/invention of fire was for the entire human race.
But while this theme is certainly appealing, especially to someone like me who’s truly passionate about social change, I’m afraid that these gains also come with compromises.
For example, while all 6 panelists shared the same stage, they weren’t often sharing the same language. The business people (all three men) spoke almost exclusively (and rather insultingly IMHO) in finance terms, while a health-and-rights-based approach was reserved for the NGO sector.
The CEO of Goldman Sachs, for example, discussed investments in women by saying things like “This is the highest return-on-risk space you can have” and “This is a recruiting and retention tool for our firm” and “At the end of the day this isn’t our money, it’s shareholder’s money, so we have to be mindful of what they think” and “Our business input is only business and reputation, so when you’re doing these thing that make people feel more engaged that’s good.”
Now, I know that using language about money and profit has the potential to engage a much broader audience in caring about the same feminist issues that I care about (albeit for different reasons). And I definitely get that corporate involvement can have tangible benefits for women. Case in point: As a direct result of the collaborations that came out of this Meeting, 13 new commitments to women and girls were just announced, many from corporations, and not the least of which involves pharmaceutical bigwhigs Merck and Qiagen pledging to donate more than $500 million of their Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine with the goal of improving women’s health in developing countries.
This kind of thing is awesome, and my intention is not to belittle the significance of these kinds of commitments, both philanthropic and entrepreneurial.
But even though I get the appeal of making these collaborations, I’m still not sure I’m completely sold that this kind of collaboration is the ideal way to solve the problems of the world’s women. In fact, think we need to be crystal clear on what this collaborative spirit does and does not represent, and what it will and will not accomplish:
What it does represent is an offer from an inherently profit-seeking entity, to continue to prioritize profit-making, but to also try to do so in a way that results in positive change for women.
What it does not represent is an offer from an inherently profit-seeking entity to place the health and rights of women above the priority of seeking profit.
What it will most likely accomplish is an increase in resources to some women in some places who desperately need it.
What it will most certainly not accomplish is the kind of paradigm shift in the way the world views, treats, and engages with women that would be necessary to achieve the total access to rights, health, and empowerment that all the world’s women not only need, but deserve.
Which brings me to the central question that I’ve been wrestling with as I’ve been covering this Meeting: How much commitment is enough commitment to “the cause”? Are we (as in, global feminists) in a “take-what-we-can-get” situation? If not, how much compromise is an “acceptable” amount? Is it worth it to sacrifice a rights-based approach to women’s health and empowerment, in order to gain the backing and partial financial support of some of the largest multinational corporations in the world, even as they continue to hold and act on profit-seeking priorities that may stand in direct opposition to those of the feminist movement?
Even asking these questions might paint me to some as a radical. But to be honest, although I’m skeptical of the conflicts-of-interest that may arise form these delicate collaborations, I still feel quite open to arguments that this kind of compromise is not just a step in the right direction, but is, in fact, the destination, as Clinton and CGI seem to be proposing. Thoughts?

and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

5 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It’s the eternal quandary we all face. If we were speaking about art, we’d been discussing whether it is to stay pure or to sell out. And the issue you raise is an interesting one, particularly after I read an article this morning that states that the Democratic party has lost a tremendous amount of funds from high-dollar, particularly corporate donors, because it has criticized and stigmatized large businesses for their complicity in causing the collapse of the banking and financial sector.
    I wish I could provide you an easy answer, but what I will say is that we all have to compromise our ethical standards to a degree to become anything like a major player. One can stay completely pure and be a minor element with a niche voice, but it takes a degree of selling into the existing framework to have a louder, more credible voice, too.

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    It’s the eternal quandary we all face. If we were speaking about art, we’d been discussing whether it is to stay pure or to sell out. And the issue you raise is an interesting one, particularly after I read an article this morning that states that the Democratic party has lost a tremendous amount of funds from high-dollar, particularly corporate donors, because it has criticized and stigmatized large businesses for their complicity in causing the collapse of the banking and financial sector.
    I wish I could provide you an easy answer, but what I will say is that we all have to compromise our ethical standards to a degree to become anything like a major player. One can stay completely pure and be a minor element with a niche voice, but it takes a degree of selling into the existing framework to have a louder, more credible voice, too.

  3. Jos
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Lori, thank you for this excellent take on some of the ethical, moral, and strategic questions raised by attending CGI.
    My beliefs and goals are radical, but I am also committed to incremental change to improve people’s immediate lives. CGI has brought up a lot of questions for me about the conflicts and convergences contained in my own worldview.
    I think your overview of “what this collaborative spirit does and does not represent” is right on – I agree completely.

  4. Alice
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I think the World Bank is actually a rather straight-forward example of imperialism. They make loans to governments, who then squander the money as governments generally do, and then expects them to pay back the money thru taxes collected from the locals, making the World Bank a means of extracting resources from people thru the veil of legitimacy provided by a local state, and thus a form of imperialism in the style of the ancient Persian Empire.

  5. EKSwitaj
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    My belief has always been that we need both the niche voices and the louder ones. Each benefits from the other (the more mainstream voices push the incremental changes that make the niche ones look a little less frightening and far off, while the voices further afield show just how mainstream the others are), and both pursue goals that can have a real positive impact on the lives of women, whether in the short of long-term.
    Looked at this way, it makes sense for each of us to choose our approach on the basis of our own abilities or which way makes for the best solution to whatever specific problems we may be working on.

Feministing In Your Inbox

Sign up for our Newsletter to stay in touch with Feministing
and receive regular updates and exclusive content.

165 queries. 0.288 seconds