“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?

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to her work at Feministing, Lori is an Associate Director at Planned Parenthood Global. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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