The closing session was carefully staged.  Attendees seated in a circle around an elevated platform in the center of the room.  A single chair on the platform, next to a table. An announcer comes on the speakers, "Ladies and gentlemen, the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton," and President Clinton walks in the room, up on the platform and addresses the attendees with a short statement.  Then he sits in the chair and asks for summarizing reports from the four working groups – Education, Poverty, Energy and Climate Change and Health.

Following the reports, Clinton talks about the role of the CGI process, and the role of government.

Some background on this question: From the opening of the conference there was a question in the air.  The scale of the commitments at this CGI was clearly going to be large, and the kinds of challenges people were taking on affect so many people, that I found myself wondering what about governments?   Shouldn’t they be doing these things, not CGI and other private/non-profit efforts?

I realized that others were asking this as well when I went online to see what other bloggers were writing.  Wednesday Matt Yglesias wrote that the CGI is really about things that government should be addressing, not philanthropy:

"…it really seems to me that Bill Clinton could do much more good using his charisma and standing to try to convince rich guys and executives at big companies to take a more enlightened attitude toward the political process, to return to the sort of public-spirited involvement in public affairs that characterized the business class in the 1950s and 60s. Realistically, you can’t resolve climate change if the United States of America is in the grips of a fanatic ideological aversion to taxes and regulation, an ideological aversion that American business has spent — and continues to spend — tons of money propagating and re-enforcing. Similarly, you could do a ton of poverty alleviation if you worked through the political process to reorient America’s global engagement away from such a lopsided reliance on the military. But somebody other than defense contractors and Israeli nationalists would need to invest serious money in foreign policy ideas."

And Ezra Klein was writing about similar questions,

Everyone was very impressed when, at last year’s Clinton Global Initiative, Richard Branson pledged $3 billion to fund renewable energy respurce. That’s great! And to us mortals, who are used to thinking in sums of a couple hundred, or thousand, it’s an almost inconceivable sum. But on the scale of creating new sources of energy, it’s actually rather small. Very useful, but small. And it’s certainly not a substitute for collective action that caps the total carbon output. The private donations can drive some technology, but they really can’t do the job. Only collective action can, and the virtuous momentum of the CGI and various corporate press releases can’t be allowed to serve as a substitute for public action.

Commenters at the blogs were even asking if CGI was actually providing cover for government inaction.

So how much of the CGI is responding to the inaction of governments?  And how much of this is really the job of government?

President Clinton was aware of these concerns and addressed them at the closing session.

He said that there is no question that these are problems that require a public response – a government response.  For example, it was governments that set up the regulatory processes that kept capitalism from destroying itself.  Only governments can raise the kind of funding that will really address the major challenges.  "Government have to do more because there’s more money there."  And many of these problems are so big that we need governments working together. 

But, he said, it works best when all three sectors are working together and that is the approach he is trying to trigger here.  He said that he intends CGI to be an action-forcing event.  These are the kind of problems that are ready-made for the CGI process.  It is not an either/or between government and private, non-government action.  While we wait around for government action, we can explore new approaches, learn what works, and get programs ready and scalable for governments to take them on.  And there are so many things that we can do more quickly.

So he hears the criticisms, and felt a need to address them.  I have a few comments, but I’d like to get a discussion started first.  Leave a comment here.