The global development conference circuit is well trodden and has looked very similar year after year. Organizations know to mark their calendars for the World Economic Forum Davos meeting each January, the World Bank Spring Meetings in April, and the United Nations General Assembly week and Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting in September.
Next year, though, the conference circuit will look a little different. News broke in recent weeks that this year’s CGI 2016 Annual Meeting will be the last, as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign aims to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.
CGI has become an important milestone in global development ever since the Clinton Foundation first launched the event in 2005, as a gathering where heads of state, philanthropists, corporate leaders, development practitioners, and others discuss global challenges and make high-profile “commitments to action” on stage.
While much of the commentary around CGI’s finale has focused on politics, it’s important to think about what this change means for the global development community. For the past 11 years, CGI has provided an opportunity for those launching new programs, partnerships, and broad multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) to gain visibility and access to new networks and funders. As the final CGI wraps up this week in New York, we have a unique opportunity to step back and ask: What sort of prominent convenings does the global development community actually need?
The CGI Legacy
Over the years, CGI has met with both praise and criticism in the development community.
From the beginning, it has helped drive active engagement from the private sector toward the public good—a previously nascent dialogue. CGI has also served as the launchpad for programs and initiatives, providing them with visibility and opportunities for cross-pollination. MSIs—collective action efforts akin to the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which are very difficult to pull off without facilitation and convenings—have particularly benefited from CGI.
Behind the scenes, CGI staff has helped initiatives through “the long tail” of work that goes into MSIs before they even launch. Our team at the Global Development Incubator (GDI) made a CGI commitment to action on mental health this week, and benefited from lesser-discussed but equally critical, hands-on support from the CGI team over the last several months—from introducing us to new partners and funders, to helping us hone our narrative for broader appeal.
CGI hasn’t been immune to criticism, however. Some have questioned whether it holds its commitments accountable with enough transparency and persistence the global development field often requires. Others have wondered whether the convening has emphasized on-stage, flashy commitments to the detriment of tackling serious tactical issues critical to the success of MSIs. Finally, while CGI has brought many different groups together, it is still an extremely exclusive convening; many events are reserved for CGI member organizations only, making it more difficult for existing groups to “preach beyond the choir” and for new groups to get involved.
Critiques aside, the positive legacy of CGI is hard to dispute: According to CGI’s website, the more than 3,500 commitments organizations have made over the years have affected more than 430 million people. It is difficult to translate numbers directly into impact, but CGI has certainly been a powerful motivator for social good.
Rethinking the Global Development Convening
Recognizing the global development community will face a void next September without CGI, we’ve set out to start a conversation around what should come next.
The next global development convening—whether it takes the form of a September event or something entirely different—can capitalize on the best parts of CGI while also going a step further to emphasize a “walk over talk” mentality and remove barriers for the highest-potential MSIs in global development.
To make this happen, the next global development convening will need to:
1. Be the “galvanizing event” for initiatives getting off the ground.
We recently interviewed the funders and founders behind 17 MSIs in global development, and found that the most successful ones use what we call “galvanizing events” for their launch. Externally, this sort of event—whether a political commitment or prestigious platform—creates a sense of inevitability around the MSI and serves as a marker of political prominence, thereby legitimizing the MSI. Internally, they serve as “forcing mechanisms” to help stakeholders move beyond the collective action challenges all too common in MSIs, such as getting internal buy-in, approval, and potentially funding to commit to the effort.
The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is one example of an initiative that benefited greatly from an on-stage CGI launch and public endorsement from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. CGI has played this role well, and it will be important for the global development convening of the future as well.
2. Harness a multipolar power dynamic.
Having the Clinton Foundation at the forefront of CGI has helped create visibility around social impact initiatives—the star power of the Clintons especially has allowed CGI to gather a prestigious group of people in the same place to focus on previously neglected issues. But the “unipolar” nature of CGI (with the Clinton Foundation as sole convener) may have held it back from taking advantage of opportunities that a more “multipolar” approach (with several groups co-convening) could draw on. A multipolar approach could have numerous benefits—including promoting enhanced mutual accountability and opening doors for creative partnerships—important to cross-sectoral and bottom-up solutions for lasting change.
We tried to take this multipolar approach through the Financing and Innovation in Global Health forum we launched with partners in April 2016. GDI served as a neutral convener, bringing together various strengths from across sectors, including groups from private sector companies like Johnson & Johnson and JPMorgan Chase & Co., and development organizations like USAID and the United Nations. The level of discussion and concrete, live opportunities that emerged affirmed what can happen when everyone—speakers, attendees, and even sponsors—checks their hat at the door and focuses on the shared vision over organizational priorities.
3. Try “blending” funding commitments.
Dollar figures commonly adorn headlines at CGI and other global development convenings. Largely, the funding behind these initiatives comes from corporations, foundations, or public government agencies. Future convenings should harness the power of blended finance—or, transactions that combine funding from development institutions, philanthropic entities, and profit-seeking investors—to mobilize new, significant, and previously uninvolved private capital toward closing the estimated $2.5 trillion Sustainable Development Goals funding gap. Similar to how CGI helped bring private sector money to public good issues, a future convening could mainstream blended finance as a way to fund MSIs.
The conclusion of CGI represents a major shake-up in the global development conference circuit, leaving the World Economic Forum Davos meeting as the only major non-governmental/donor convening. But it also offers an opportunity for the sector to reinvent—or at least thoughtfully revisit—how we connect for impact. Regardless of what fills the CGI void, it will require convening power comparable to that of the Clintons. It remains to be seen who that convener will be—perhaps a coalition of high-net-worth individuals, an alliance of companies, or group of retired heads of state?—but we hope the sector can use this moment to dream big.