President Clinton’s wonderful example

By Ellen Ratner

I’ve gone hot and cold with President Clinton. I loved him when he came into office, supported him throughout the Monica Lewinsky crisis and became upset with him when he left office for not pardoning my friend Webb Hubbell. Although I was disappointed with him for the Monica crisis, I am now amazed at the work he is doing for the world. Like most human beings, he is a mixed bag. Like many of us, his weakness is also his strength. This week, President Clinton’s weakness for women of all kinds showed up as his great strength. His Clinton Global Initiative, which took place in New York, focused on the needs of women and a commitment to empower girls around the world.

The best thing about his annual conference is that those attending must make a public commitment as to what they are willing to do for others. It is a commitment of time, money and resources. During the five years of his annual conferences, people and organizations that have attended have committed billions of dollars.

The facts that President Clinton presented are not pretty. “Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work and produce 50 percent of the food, yet earn only 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent property,” he said. It turns out that when women receive pay, she will reinvest 90 percent back into her family, compared to men who only reinvest 35 percent. This fact became crystal clear to me when I visited the slums of Kenya in 1994 and saw shacks with no running water and no electricity. One large shack, which functioned as the local bar, was filled with all male drinkers in the middle of the day. The women were washing at the well, and the men were drinking.

For every year of education, residents of the third world increase their earning power by 10 percent. Paul Farmer, a doctor who has built clinics around the world, said that more than one billion people lack safe drinking water, two billion people lack basic sanitation and women represent two-thirds of the world’s illiterate.

These facts mean that just a little bit of empowerment can mean a huge difference in people’s lives, especially women. Amazing results have occurred with President Clinton’s Initiative through small programs which were created by people with an idea and mission. I met many individuals this week who were moved to do something and did not wait for a large organization to send a pitch letter. These people just saw a need and began a small organization to make something happen. The creativity and the business models presented were not charity as much as they were empowerment and sustainability.

All for Africa is a Non-Government Organization, or NGO, that I invested in because they have a business model for investing in the continent. Using a large donated tract of land in Ghana, it plants palm trees. It take three years for the plants to produce palm oil, and after the initial investment by a nonprofit for the planting and care of the trees they produced the equivalent of that investment for the next 25 or 30 years. Their theory is that many mission-minded people can raise the money to build a school or orphanage but do not have the money to sustain it.

There are handicraft cooperatives that train women to make baskets and bead jewelry and then work with stores such as Macy’s to sell the work. This allows small groups of women to market and merchandise their work in a broader world market. Shoe4Africa began by sending shoes to Africa so women could begin to run. They organize races and have used their contact with women to promote AIDS education and awareness. Something simple such as Sustainable Health Enterprise provides access to eco-friendly sanitary pads. That reduces pelvic disease and increases school attendance, which increases economic growth. Other programs train nurses and increase the number of women attending college with a major in business. Every one of these programs gives the women a hand up not a hand out, as former President Clinton says. It is a far cry from the foreign aid that many of us grew up with.

The Clinton Initiative is making a huge difference in the lives of women and girls. It proves that our personal difficulties can turn into our greatest assets, and President Clinton is a wonderful example of how that can work. It is a testament to his life and work.