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Clinton writes: "I firmly believe that progress changes consciousness, and when you change people's consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well - a virtuous circle."

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (photo: Unknown)
Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (photo: Unknown)

The Case for Optimism

By Bill Clinton, TIME

21 September 12


ur world is more interdependent than ever. Borders have become more like nets than walls, and while this means that wealth, ideas, information and talent can move freely around the globe, so can the negative forces shaping our shared fates. The financial crisis that started in the U.S. and swept the globe was further proof that--for better and for worse--we can't escape one another.

There are three big challenges with our interdependent world: inequality, instability and unsustainability. The fact that half the world's people live on less than $2 a day and a billion people on less than $1 a day is stark evidence of inequality, which is increasing in many places. We're feeling the effects of instability not only in the global economic slowdown but also in the violence, popular disruptions and political conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. And the way we produce and use energy is unsustainable, changing our climate in ways that cast a shadow over our children's future.

But I firmly believe that progress changes consciousness, and when you change people's consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well--a virtuous circle. So it's important that the word gets out, that people realize what's working. That where there's been creative cooperation coupled with a communitarian view of our future, we're seeing real success. That's the reason I try to bring people together every year for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Here are five areas in which there has been concrete, measurable and reproducible progress.

1) Technology

Phones Mean Freedom

Forget what you may have heard about a digital divide or worries that the world is splintering into "info haves" and "info have-nots." The fact is, technology fosters equality, and it's often the relatively cheap and mundane devices that do the most good. A 2010 U.N. study, for example, found that cell phones are one of the most effective advancements in history to lift people out of poverty.

In Haiti, one of the poorest places on the planet, phones have revolutionized the average person's access to financial opportunity. Until very recently, banks in Haiti didn't make loans. Since about 20% of the country's income comes from remittances from Haitians working in the U.S, Canada, France and around the Caribbean, the banks concentrated on converting the dollars, francs and Canadian dollars to Haitian currency. While that kept the banks in business, it didn't help the ordinary Haitian or change the fact that roughly 70% of the country's people were living on less than $2 a day before the 2010 earthquake.

As a consequence, only 10% of Haitians have a bank account. But around 80% of Haitian households have access to a cell phone. So the chairman of Digicel, Irish businessman Denis O'Brien, worked with a Canadian bank, Scotiabank, to provide a service that lets Haitians withdraw cash and make deposits and person-to-person transfers using their mobile phones without a bank account. By the end of 2011, this service had processed over 6 million transactions.

Similar stories are happening in Africa. Only 4% of households in Africa have Internet access, but more than 50% have cell phones. Because counterfeit medications are a huge problem in sub-Saharan Africa, a CGI member created a company called Sproxil, which lets people in Africa (and now India) use cell phones to text a code on any medication they have to see if it's counterfeit. Ericsson--with the U.N., big investment firm Delta Partners and an NGO called Refugees United--is helping families that have become separated because of conflict reunite using cell phones.

Smart phones help restart the lives of many individuals, but they also help millions of individuals help restart the lives of others. We've seen how technological advances have democratized charitable giving as never before, allowing people to make a difference even if they don't have much time or money to give. The 2004 South Asian tsunami was the first natural disaster in which huge numbers of people who were poor or of modest means gave a little of their money because they could use global communication networks to do it. For example, Americans gave $1.92 billion toward tsunami relief, with a median contribution of $50. When the earthquake hit Haiti, Americans also gave a billion dollars, but that time the median was even lower, because by then cell-phone technology had enabled people to give as little as $5 or $10 simply by texting their favored charity.

2) Health

Healthy Communities Prosper

While governments, the private sector and foundations have long worked to combat major health crises, innovative partnerships among these three sectors have led to greater advancements in building lasting health systems in poor countries than any of those groups could have made on its own. Working together in innovative ways results in an exponential increase in the good they all can do.

When my foundation began working to address the AIDS crisis in 2002, only 230,000 people in the developing world were getting treatment with lifesaving but expensive antiretroviral medicines. Today, in part because the pharmaceutical industry moved from being a low-volume, high-margin business to a low-margin, high-volume one with guaranteed payments, that number is 8 million. A recent study found that with the exception of South Africa, treatment now costs on average just $200 per patient per year, and that number includes the cost of drugs, diagnostic tests, personnel and other outpatient costs. All of these savings have been achieved while also improving the profitability of the drug companies.

So the good news is that we're winning the global fight against HIV/AIDS. With the help of government-funded programs like UNAIDS and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which I think was President George W. Bush's finest foreign policy achievement, together with the work of NGOs like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and companies like Coca-Cola, the idea of an AIDS-free generation has become a tangible goal rather than a dream.

The troika of government, the private sector and foundations is seeking to improve health care for the long term. I was in Rwanda over the summer for the launch of that country's Human Resources for Health program, which is addressing a critical shortage of health workers. Rwanda has only 633 physicians to treat a population of over 10 million. In partnership with 13 top-ranked U.S. schools, the program is addressing this deficit not by staffing clinics and hospitals with foreign specialists but by building a local, sustainable education system that will reduce the country's reliance on foreign aid.

Other good examples of innovation and cooperation have come through members of CGI. In 2010, the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center committed to improve cancer care in Haiti, Mexico, Jordan and Rwanda in collaboration with Partners in Health, co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, at their locations and other cancer facilities. Partners in Health has also teamed up with the Rwandan Ministry of Health, the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation and the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's center to open the Cancer Center of Excellence in Butaro, Rwanda--a part of the country that until four years ago didn't have a basic hospital for a population of over 320,000. The new center goes beyond basics to supply world-class care, not just for local Rwandans but for the entire region.

Finally, in the U.S., where Americans face an epidemic of childhood obesity, one way we're fighting it is to have healthier beverage choices in schools. The beverage industry voluntarily committed to changing the mix in schools across the country by removing full-calorie soft drinks and replacing them with lower-calorie, more nutritious options. At the beginning of the 2009--10 school year, 98.8% of all surveyed schools and school districts were in compliance with the guidelines, which meant that shipments of full-calorie carbonated soft drinks to schools had dropped by 95%.

3) Economy

Green Energy Equals Good Business

There's no denying that too much of the world is still mired in an economic slowdown, but some of the brightest examples of significant and lasting opportunity are right under our noses. In tough times, it's harder to accept that some economic instability is good--if there were no possibility of failure, there would be no room for success.

In spite of all the recent criticism of free trade and free markets, it's important to remember that in the 25 years leading up to the current economic crisis, more people worldwide moved from poverty to the middle class than at any other time in history.

The problem is that the population is growing fastest in the areas least able to take advantage of the benefits of the modern world. Talent and intelligence may be spread evenly across the planet, but opportunity is not.

All around the world, in poor countries and rich ones, the private sector, governments and nonprofits are combining their skills and resources to form networks of creative cooperation to boost local economies while addressing problems like climate change and poverty. Smallholder farmers in Africa are planting trees so they can not only harvest timber or fruit but also profit by selling carbon credits on the world market.

But it's hard to top the economic success stories concerning clean energy, and it's tragic that these achievements aren't more widely known. Germany, where the sun shines on average as much as it does in London, reportedly set the world record for electricity generated from the sun in a single day: 22 gigawatts, or roughly the output of 20 nuclear power plants.

Long mislabeled as expensive and unwieldy, the clean-energy sector in the U.S. was actually growing by 8.3% before the economic slowdown, more than twice the rate of the overall economy. In fact, those European countries meeting their Kyoto Protocol commitments have been among the least hard hit by the economic crisis, including Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

If sustainable energy were bad economics, Costa Rica wouldn't be one of the richest countries in the region, with what is arguably the greenest economy in the world. Costa Rica certainly has one of the world's highest percentages of electricity generated from renewable resources as well as an enormous conservation ethic: 26% of its landmass is in national parks, 51% in forest cover.

At the moment, I am most optimistic about Brazil, not only because of its significant growth in the past decade but also because of something that simultaneously declined: its level of economic inequality.

Brazilians did it by creating a pile of new jobs and paying poor families to send their children to school and get annual checkups. They did it by controlling their energy destiny, not simply developing their oil resources but also maximizing their hydropower. And they did it while planning to cut by 75% the annual rate of rain-forest destruction. Brazil certainly still has its share of challenges, but its successes have been truly astonishing.

4) Equality


Simply put, no society can truly flourish if it stifles the dreams and productivity of half its population. Happily, I see evidence all over the world that women are gaining social and economic power that they never had before. This is good news not only for the individuals themselves but also for entire societies, for it's been proved that women tend to reinvest economic gains back into their families and communities more than men do.

Rwanda provides some great examples. It's changed dramatically since my first visit 14 years ago. Today, Rwanda's per capita income is five times as high as it was in 1998, roads and infrastructure have improved immensely, and--in one of the greatest signs of progress--more than half the members of Parliament are women, making Rwanda the first country to achieve that distinction. Rwandan women are gaining economically too. During a visit to the country this summer, I toured the construction site of what will eventually be a large soy-processing factory. My foundation helped get the project off the ground, but eventually it will be owned and maintained by local farmers and the government. It will create domestic demand for soy, and once completed, it is expected to provide 30,000 farmers in eastern Rwanda--55% of whom are women--with jobs by contracting with them to grow soybeans.

In nearby Malawi, there's a large commercial farm that leverages economies of scale to secure bulk pricing for things like soy seed and fertilizer. On a previous trip there, I met a female farmer who had joined the program and as a result had increased her yield from five to 20 bags per acre, earning double what she had under the old system. With her extra income, she put a new roof on her home and paid tuition to send her daughters to school. So you can see how this work can change not just an individual life but also the fate of a family or the course of an entire community.

The private sector can play a big role here. Gap Inc. has a program called Personal Achievement and Career Enhancement (PACE), which is expanding from India to Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and hopefully beyond. PACE focuses on building the life skills of female garment workers and enhancing their career opportunities by providing technical-skills training. Ultimately this helps the workers and managers of garment factories view the welfare and potential of their female line workers as key to their success.

Women face similar challenges in emerging and affluent countries too--but we're seeing signs of progress, particularly in the Middle East. Since 2002, Bahrain's national elections have been open to women. Saudi Arabia has serious modernization efforts under way, and in the past several years there have been more women than men enrolled in institutions of higher education globally.

5) Justice

The Fight for The Future Is Now

Many of the world's greatest challenges today are simply modern manifestations of our oldest demons. The truth is, the future has never had a big enough constituency--those fighting for present gain almost always win out. But we are now called upon to try to create a whole different mind-set. We are in a pitched battle between the present array of resources and attitudes and the future struggling to be born.

It's struggling just as much in every distressed community in America as it was in Tahrir Square in Cairo. We have to define the meaning of our lives as something other than our ability to control someone else's. The persistent inequality among and within societies breeds instability and conflict, but there are success stories all over the world that we can use as models for reform.

In places once synonymous with conflict, like the Balkans and Rwanda, former antagonists are now working together to solve problems. In 2011 I attended a global-sustainability conference in Manaus, Brazil, at the edge of the rain forest. Remarkably, utility companies and all the oil companies were represented. The native Brazilian tribes that live in the rain forest, which are protected by law and will be hurt if there's further development, were represented. The woman who ran for President on the Green Party ticket and spoke out against all this development was there. Small businesses and environmental groups were represented. The delegates sat around small tables, speaking to one another with great respect, believing that if they worked together, they could find an answer. They all understood that if this were a simple issue, someone would have already solved the problem.

My last example of why I'm optimistic concerns one of my favorite partnerships, the Hult International Business School and its annual Hult Global Case Challenge. Each year the school joins with leading NGOs to pose a series of real global social challenges, and teams of four or five university students from around the world compete to find the best solution. The NGO partners then receive seed funding for implementing the winning ideas through a $1 million cash grant.

One of the winners this year was from the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University, and the team was four students: one from India, one from Pakistan, one from China and one from Taiwan. When they came onstage to receive their award and pose for a picture, I asked them, "Are you sure you guys want this in the local paper?" And they said, in various ways, "We are so over this." The differences between India and Pakistan over Kashmir are real, as are the tensions between China and Taiwan, but these students are living 10 years from now. They have something to look forward to, and they set a wonderful example for the rest of us to follow. your social media marketing partner
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