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The First Day of the Clinton Global Initiative: Commitments and Clean Water, Matt Damon and Obama

“This is the only conference you have ever been to where the gift bag is empty,” said former President Bill Clinton at the opening session of the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative this afternoon.Laughter filled the audience, packed into the Sheraton Hotel ballroom, of presidents of countries, dignitaries, top executives and NGO representatives, who were either invited or paid thousands of dollars to participate in the annual networking event.  Clinton explained that the attendees have to fill the bag – with commitments of their time and talent to solve world problems like poverty, disease, energy and climate change disasters.

“That is your gift,” Clinton said.  I appreciated the psychological implications of the metaphoric use of the word “gift.” At many board meetings of non-profits, I have heard references to the 3 T’s:  our time, talent and treasure.   Those are the gifts we give to others, to enrich their lives.

So many in the world are in need, and the accomplishments of past CGIs have been impressive to meet those needs, with thousands of companies and individuals making “commitments" to work together to effect positive change, feed starving children, implement alternate energy sources, and purify dirty water.

Dirty water causes disease and death for millions of children under 5 years old, Clinton explained.

The first panel of the day included the female President of the Republic of Chile, Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet.  In his true engaging style, Clinton highlighted how she was the first female defense minister in Latin America, proving that women are not always in “soft” positions in government. 

I was reminded of the celebration of womanhood in Chile I had been exposed to over 15 years ago, when I attended the wedding of a former Miss Universe from Chile, Cecilia Bolocco.  She had married my friend who was a fellow talk show host on CNBC-TV when it launched in 1989.  The event was like the wedding of Princess Diana, with loudspeakers transmitting the ceremony to the crowds lining the streets. 

Another panelist, the President and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent (whom Clinton pointed out as coming from Turkey) announced that the company has pledged money towards clean drinking water in Africa for every one of the typical dances done in celebration of every goal made at the World Cup.  The football sporting event is exceptionally popular around the world, equivalent to our soccer in the U.S. (and called by that name in the rest of the world… sometimes causing confusion).

Coca-Cola also plans to make their bottles out of recyclable sugar cane product.  New programs using less water, he explained, will free women up from carrying water on their heads, to be able to participate in entrepreneurial work.

The President and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. described how his company has a new health care plan for its workers. He also posed his future program for consumer information, asking, “Wouldn’t it be great to know the footprint of every product you buy?”

 Both CEOs were received with appreciation by the crowd.

Clinton also endorsed the G20 – participation in world affairs by more countries than the present G8 – while acknowledging that it will be more complicated to hear more voices.  With 192 countries at the UN, he asked us to imagine the difficulties of 192 people sitting around a table making a decision. 

Relating his concern about clean energy, Clinton applauded Israel. “Israel will have 100,000 electric cars in one tiny country,” he noted, encouraging others to follow the lead. “It’s the debate in Washington and everywhere,” he said.  “Can we grow the economy by consuming energy in a different way?”

The two commitments celebrated during this opening session were by actor Matt Damon regarding clean water in Haiti.  This peeked my interested because of my recent trip to Haiti, witnessing extreme poverty and needs of the people. I went with a wonderful Haitian priest who is interning with my UN NGO organization, the International Association of Applied Psychology, and has presented about ways ot overcome poverty and violence in that country at conferences at the UN and also att he American Psychological Association. Father Wismick Jean Charles took me to the village where he was born and for whom he is “giving back” by building a community center to feed and educate the children and provide health care. 

The second CGI commitment example was a project in Kenya.  A past year’s CGI participant had entered three words in the CGI web connect: girls, education and empowerment, and gotten immediate response and funding.  Three of the girls who benefited from the project recited a story about their appreciation and growth, centered on the metaphor of having shoes. Another crowd-pleaser.

Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher were spotted in the crowd.  The Demi and Ashton Foundation will be at the Thursday awards event when Alicia Keyes will sing.

Clinton covered for the few minutes of late arrival of the keynote speaker – President Obama – by describing that he President is a “Decider in Chief,” a phrase the former President Bush had used.  He described that others make many decisions the President just signs off on, but other difficult ones are left to him.  

Obama arrived to enthusiastic applause.  He amused the audience in his typical engaging speaking style, by describing how Clinton took him to lunch at an Italian restaurant and then peered from under his glasses, with his characteristic way of making you feel like you are the only person in the room (I experienced that same ability when I met Clinton in the Oval Office at one of his private Saturday meetings).  Obama complimented Clinton saying how he could retire and work on his golf score (which he said he heard was still not that great) but instead he is making such a difference in the world. Obama also complimented himself, saying that he knows the experience of government working with NGOs, as he was a community organizer, as his mother was a pioneer in civil society groups, and as Michelle left her law firm to work for an NGO.