Alter: An Inspiring Clinton Conference

Good news alert: Whatever you think of the Clintons, only the stone-hearted could fail to be inspired by the third annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) that wrapped up in New York City on Friday.

It isn't just that Bill Clinton can still wow a crowd. It isn't all the heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winners, billionaires, and A-list celebrities (such as Brangelina and NBA center Dikembe Mutombo) who showed up. It's that in contrast to the countless number of well-intentioned but usually meaningless conferences conducted every year, the Clinton Foundation has figured out how to do these things right.

Based on a model originated a decade ago at a Philadelphia conference on America's at-risk kids, CGI has strict rules. The most fundamental: You've got to be doing something to play. No specific commitment to help address global health, education, energy or poverty challenges, no ticket to this high-status event. By making it a cool club, Clinton gets African prime ministers and Russian oligarchs and innovative "social entrepreneurs" to schmooze with people like Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, Google co-founder Larry Page and Mexico's Carlos Slim, who recently passed Bill Gates to become the world's richest man and announced at the conference that he plans to give away every penny of his fortune before he dies.

"We're all going to have to re-imagine what it means to be a 21st century citizen," Clinton told the crowd of about 1,000 at the New York Sheraton. "It means moving from opinion to conviction, from inclination to action and from saying, 'I wish' to saying, 'I will.'"

According to Clinton Foundation projections, the 245 new signed commitments made at this year's CGI will give 50 million people access to treatment for diseases, 8.5 million children a chance to go to school and protect 170 million acres of forest from being cut down.

Another 40,000 people visited MyCommitment.org during the three-day conference to make their own, smaller pledges of time and money, a sign that "Giving" (the title of Clinton's new No. 1 bestseller) might be going viral. Now they need to move closer to a model like Donorschoose.org (full disclosure: I'm a board member) which lets potential contributors connect directly to education requests posted by teachers.

There's definitely some hype involved. At last year's CGI, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin-Atlantic, pledged $3 billion to confront climate change. His explanations at this year's event about how he is spending the money felt thin to me, and his isn't the only commitment that features its share of public relations. Still, even if only a fraction of the pledges get fulfilled, CGI is way ahead of the game.

And while CGI needs more transparency in the fulfillment of pledges (and less hot air at its breakout panels), at least it has some kind of accountability process in place, borrowed from what we all remember from 8th Grade. After the final session, Clinton told me that last year he had to dis-invite 17 participants from 2004 who weren't fulfilling their commitments. This year, he only had to dis-invite five. The CGI attendees know that reneging is very uncool.

Among this year's flashier commitments: Brad Pitt and Steve Bing's $10 million pledge to build 100 energy-efficient houses in New Orleans, YouTube's $20 million plan for a special site devoted to Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and a program by a group of Small Luxury Hotels to add $3 to their hotel bills for good causes.

Among the bigger ones: The government of Dubai promised to build and renovate enough schools to accommodate and serve an additional million students in poor countries (worth hundreds of millions of dollars), and a group of countries, led by Norway, pledged $1.2 billion over 10 years for child and maternal health in the developing world.

The scope of the global education problem: 80 million children do not go to school at all, and 250 million don't go to secondary school. Amazingly, the vast majority of poor countries still charge a fee to attend school. Tanzania and Kenya recently converted to free public schools, a huge advance. Education is a key factor in lessening AIDS, infant mortality and many other afflictions.

The health statistics are sobering: Two billion people—nearly one third of the world's population—don't get enough to eat, 10 million children die every year from preventable disease (two million of them on the day they were born), and 500,000 women die during childbirth—one every minute. Health care is often simply non-existent. Tanzania, for instance, has one doctor for every 28,000 patients and one nurse for every 21,000.

But there are signs that the world is finally beginning to tackle these problems. UNICEF announced recently that deaths of children under five are falling—down 60 percent since 1960. While 500 million families get by on less than $2 a day, the micro-credit movement is surging, with small loans to women the key to raising income. And the organizations and individuals taking part in forums like the Clinton Global Initiative are learning that it's within their power to re-make the world—and redeem their own brief moment on the earth.

Join the Discussion