As I posted earlier, I’m spending the next three days at the Clinton Global Initiative. A few of my favorite bloggers, including Jessica, Barbara and Peter, are all here also. The opening plenary session, which featured President Clinton, First Lady Laura Bush, and a panel discussion, just ended. The pre-session video featured several of the event’s coordinators and contributors, including Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, who said, “Extremism only exists where there is ignorance, where there is isolation, where there is deprivation. So it is crucial to educate our youth… and give them hope for the future.” Gayle Smith from the Center of American Progress followed with, “It is time to stop talking about why we can’t do things and go ahead and just do it.”
That statement, it seems, gets to the heart of what they’re trying to do here. The William J. Clinton Foundation is asking all of the attendees to make substantive commitments to various projects that will help to better the world. One of the first commitments came from First Lady Laura Bush, who presented a clean water initiative involving PlayPumps, which are apparently water-purifying systems that are set up as merry-go-rounds. As kids play on them, they pump clean water. Yes, it sounds kind of silly — but it’s also a pretty innovative way to bring clean water to rural areas. And clean water is a crucial component of development and disease-prevention.
Unfortunately, that was just about the only good thing that the First Lady said. The rest of her speech (which will hopefully be posted here soon) was about spinning our “achievements” abroad — she talked about her work with people living with HIV/AIDS, women, corporate accountability and education. While she was tooting the Bush administration’s horn, she naturally left out the fact that our conservative international health policies (and our hawkish, imperialistic misadventures in the Middle East) have done as much harm as good. She talked about “living positively” with HIV/AIDS, and the fact that more people are able to access antiretroviral drugs, and that more women are able to prevent HIV transmission to their babies. What she didn’t mention is that the Global Gag Rule has exacerbated the HIV/AIDS pandemic by stifling the rights of NGOs and healthcare providers to give their clients full information about their reproductive health and options; the Gag Rule has cut off funding to numerous international health organizations, closing clinics across Africa and Asia. And when health clinics close, people lose access to their primary source of sexual health information and HIV/AIDS prevention methods. But anti-choice foreign policy is apparently a more important goal than the health and lives of women, men, girls and boys.
She also didn’t mention the fact that intellectual property laws in the pharmaceutical industry (which were strongly re-affirmed by the Clinton administration) have directly resulted in the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of people with HIV/AIDS in developing nations, who saw their access to generic drugs disappear — or never appear at all, despite promises to the contrary. Now, I can understand any hesitation on her part not to insult the former President who was sitting a few feet away from her — and it’s also worth pointing out that the Bush administration is pretty indebted to big pharma, and wouldn’t consider shifting the intellectual property rules in a million years (not even to save a million lives) — but discussing HIV/AIDS relief and healthcare access and not even mentioning the fact that both the Bush and Clinton HIV/AIDS and international health policies caused irreparable damage to people in the developing world struck me as a little empty. Optimism is important. We shouldn’t dwell on past mistakes, but we should certainly take steps to correct them. Unfortunately, the mistakes from the past still stand, and the current administration isn’t doing much of anything to rectify the situation. Instead, though abstinence-based international health policies, funding of religious groups abroad that discourage condom use, and strong ties to so-called “pro-life” organizations whose policies leave tens of thousands of women dead every year, the Bush administration has lost any credibility it ever had in its promises to improve the lot of people in developing nations, and its claims of compassionate treatment for all.
She further talked about corporate accountability, which was laughable. This is the same administration that refused to sign an international agreement which would have prevented dictators and other corrupt leaders of unstable nations from siphoning money into private bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, which enables them to retire in the Carribean after their administrations are overthrown or otherwise deposed of. Which lets them escape any sort of punishment from international bodies. But because we wanted to protect big businesses and allow corporations to remain unaccountable, we refused to sign onto the agreement which would have broadly benefited the rest of the world.
Of course, we eventually did start monitering these bank accounts when we learned that terrorists were taking advantage of them. Whoops.
So I wasn’t really buying much of Laura Bush’s speech.
Following her piece was a panel discussion moderated by Tom Friedman and featuring President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Republic of Liberia), President Perves Musharraf (Islamic Republic of Pakistan), Javier Solana (Secretary General, Council of the EU) and President Alvaro Uribe Velez (Republic of Colombia). Johnson-Sirleaf, naturally, was my favorite of the speakers. She was less interested in only promoting the issues of her nation (although she certainly promoted those, too) and instead focused her comments on what all developing nations need. She made a point of saying that the current aid system is inefficient in its top-down structure — that is, it doesn’t make much sense for people in wealthier developed nations to look at less prosperous countries and tell them what they need. It makes much more sense for people in developing nations to have some flexibility in how they use the aid they receive, and to have a greater degree of influence in where that aid goes.
“We need also to have the quality of projects and interventions that will address poverty, and most times priority-setting can be a bit faulty, because it can be determined externally,” she said. “We need those who are actually the beneficiaries of these programs to actually have a say in what these programs are… We need the people who work in the communities and in the villages to help them respond to their own identified needs.”
She’s absolutely right. Some organizations, like the Global Fund for Women (one of the best international women’s rights organizations out there, in my opinion), do just that. Hopefully the United States government and other major international aid contributors will follow suit.
President Musharraf was also an interesting character. I’m no fan of him after his failure to promote more progressive rape laws in Pakistan (among many, many other things, like his country’s ties to terrorism and Osama bin Laden), but was looking forward to hearing him speak nonetheless. He gave a short history of United States involvement in South Asia, and pointed out how we were allied with Pakistan and Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and then dropped them as soon as the Soviet Union fell. Pakistan was left with 4 million refugees and an excess of U.S.-trained Mujahadeen, who eventually morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He made it clear that terrorism and extremism have to be dealt with as two different problems, and that attempting to tackle both militarily isn’t going to work. He also pointed out that, while Al Qaeda members in Pakistan and elsewhere are often outsiders, the Taliban is a local force, and that lends it greater local support. It doesn’t make sense, he argued, to use the same strategies for fighting the Taliban as we use to fight Al Qaeda. And that was certainly a good point.
Tom Friedman asked some of the participants what their biggest wish would be, if they could be granted one gift from the United States government or an NGO or aid group. Musharraf replied, “I would go for market access into United States. That is going to contribute toward increase in faith, expansion in industry, creation of jobs, therefore unemployment reduction, therefore poverty reduction, therefore striking at the root of terrorism… We need trade, not aid anymore.”
While I would love to see our markets open up, I wouldn’t hold my breath. If there’s one thing that the Republican party loves, it’s big talk about pure capitalism and free markets, and simultaneously acting quietly to protect corporations and their narrow financial interests, which inevitably involves economic protectionism and bending over backwards to promote policies which handicap individuals (especially poor individuals in developing countries) and benefit the richest of the rich.
But best of luck to him in getting his wish.
- Amazing Women by Jill June 6, 2006
- African women speak out against Bush’s abstinence-promoting HIV/AIDS policies by Jill July 11, 2007
- Pro-choice Congresspeople take steps to prevent abortion; “pro-lifers” predictably opposed by Jill June 22, 2007
- Bush Cuts Family Planning Funding by Jill February 15, 2006
- Women With AIDS on the Rise in China by Lauren July 11, 2005