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Diary of a serial summit attendee

One week. Two development summits. Hundreds of heads of state, development luminaries, CEOs, and social entrepreneurs. Celebrity star power. No poor people. Aid Watch spent three days trying to make sense of the greatest show on earth to help the world’s lowest.

TUESDAY

0930 hrs: I am crammed into a press box at the back of the world’s most glamorous development meeting, craning over the photographers to catch a glimpse of this year’s distinguished guests as they file into the room. At last, the charismatic master of ceremonies takes the stage, and the annual Bill Clinton Admiration Clinton Global Initiative comes to life. The meeting is to match people with big ideas with people with big money, and the pace of networking is furious.

1230 hrs: USAID administrator Raj Shah speaks at a CGI lunch on the topic of agriculture. While the Green Revolution saved hundreds of millions of lives in Asia, it never spread to Africa because aid agencies “actually just failed to try.” That doesn’t square with the World Bank’s finding that “Much energy has also been wasted in trying to replicate Asia’s Green Revolution model in Africa….”

1330 hrs: Introducing another “new” solution to world poverty, Hillary Clinton announced a $60 public-private partnership to replace dirty cooking stoves that spew toxic smoke with healthier, environmentally-responsible ones. (Read Alanna’s ideas on what this initiative will need to do differently to succeed where many previous efforts have failed, and these reflections from experience in India and rural Africa.)

1700 hrs: The best debate of the day is between Mohammed Yunus, who asks that the term microcredit not be used for firms that loan for profit, and Vikram Akula, of SKS Microfinance, who thinks only a commercial model can reach all the people who need and deserve loans, through access to capital markets. Here’s a summary from Forbes.

1830 hrs: My first “Tweetup,” at a bar in midtown, is much more fun than I anticipated. Lots of bloggers, aid workers, entrepreneurs and students whom I knew only by their Twitter handle now have faces and voices.

The best summary post of the day comes from Laura Seay, aka Texas in Africa, who articulates the uncomfortable sense that something essential is missing from these meetings:

… the presence of the poor is limited to pictures in slide shows while wealthy people hobnob over cocktails and abundant buffets. Am I the only one who would rather hear about what life as a poor woman in Ethiopia is like from an actual poor Ethiopian woman?

WEDNESDAY

0900 hrs: The “UN Digital Media Lounge” is where they keep the bloggers who couldn’t get real press credentials to attend the UN summit. There’s wifi, coffee and bagels, but at 47 blocks north of the actual UN building it feels a bit removed from the MDG summit. All day, different heads of state are speaking at the UN on “integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields; and follow-up to the outcome of the Millennium Summit: draft resolution.” Some of these are broadcast on the screen at the lounge; I browse though others on the UN live feed site.

1430 hrs: The most hyped event of the day is the launch of a new global health strategy for child and maternal health, “Every Woman, Every Child.” Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon promised a “clear road map for making a fundamental difference in millions of lives.” Then he opened the floor to two-minute speeches from practically everybody in the room: poor countries, rich countries, foundations, corporations, NGOs, all making promises and pledges, which the UN announced amounted to “over $40 billion in resources for women and children’s health.”

Oxfam UK questions whether the funds pledged for women and children are actually additional funds or just “promises with a seemingly big price tag in a new shiny UN wrapper.”

1700 hrs: Meeting fatigue is setting in. Since I’m not invited to the MDG Gala, where attendees will celebrate pledges to fight poverty in New York’s swankiest Plaza Hotel, I’m grabbing a beer, going home, and watching President Obama’s speech from the comfort of my couch.

…Wait a minute, did President Obama really just admit the US approach to food aid is creating dependence, not development, and that our aid policies have focused on short term gains at the expense of sustainable development? Did he just become the world’s latest aid skeptic? Did he just pledge to be guided by evidence, “to invest in programs that work, and end those that don’t”? Judging from immediate reactions, people watching are starting to get that some of that old “Yes, we can” feeling.

THURSDAY

1045 hrs: It’s Raj Shah again, stopping by the UN Digital Media Lounge. Wow, did you know he’s only 37 years old, a medical doctor with a degree in health economics? The guy is impressive. But he doesn’t address the most obvious follow-up question to Obama’s speech last night: What happens next so that Obama’s hopey-changey speech gets translated into actual change in our 50-year-old aid legislation and at USAID and the 25 other government agencies involved in US foreign assistance? Will development really be elevated on par with diplomacy and defense when the White House’s new policy says that Shah will report to the Secretary of State, and will have a seat on the National Security Council only “as appropriate”?

1400 hrs: And, we’re back at CGI for a special panel on Haiti’s reconstruction. Uh-oh, is Haiti’s President René Préval really inviting Wyclef Jean on stage? President Clinton talks investment climate with the CEO of Royal Caribbean, the cruise line that brought in more than half of Haiti’s tourists last year. He describes a Coca-Cola/IDB/TechnoServe project sourcing Haitian mangos for a new Odwalla mango-lime juice, and speaks movingly about the resilience of the Haitian people.

Coca-Cola is everywhere this week, in the speeches of Melinda Gates, Raj Shah, in multiple panels at CGI. The prominence of corporations in this week’s events led to at least one wry comment about “saving the world with high-fructose corn syrup” and an observation that we’re hearing “more and more about mutual benefit and less about the moral requirement to help those in need.”

Given the overlap in timing, topics and headline speakers (Hillary Clinton, Mohammed Yunus, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Melinda Gates and Pres Obama all spoke at both events), comparisons between the two events are inevitable, with one journalist suggesting the CGI could be “the new UN.” It does have far better production values, better food, and better (though still spotty) press access. Come to think of it, Bill Clinton would make a bit more inspirational SecGen than the mild-mannered one we have now. But let’s not forget that CGI members fork out $20,000 per year for the privilege to attend what is still, despite the roster of impressive accomplishments, a club for very privileged people.

1730 hrs: The leaders of the MDG summit have issued their “outcome document,” whose long stretches free of content, by custom, were agreed upon before the delegates even arrived:

We underscore the continued relevance of the outcomes of all major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields and the commitments contained therein, including the Millennium Development Goals….We strongly reiterate our determination to ensure the timely and full implementation of these outcomes and commitments.

Clinton is creating more of a pulse closing his show, which I’m watching from the press pen since they couldn’t fit half the press people into the mobbed closing session. Looking out at the audience (Oh my God that’s Mick Jagger!), Clinton quips that while “politics is show business for ugly people,” work in the non-governmental sector is “show businesses for nerds.” For this week, at least, he’s right, it’s been quite a spectacle. Thank goodness there’s 12 months until the next one.

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7 Comments

  1. rebecca wrote:

    “(…)where organic-free-trade-mohair-tailor-made suits rub hand-made stitches with organic-free-trade-virgin-wool-tailor-made suits and where the grinning musician of yesteryear shares pats on backs with yesteryear’s grinning politician over designer finger-food and superior beverages, united by the strong bond of blah-derhood. (…)”
    (http://handrelief.blogspot.com/2010/09/workshop-season.html)

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  2. Diane Bennett wrote:

    Their staffs are probably already reserving spaces for next year and working on menus and budgets.

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Mark Hunter wrote:

    I would be pleased to read aid watchers’ response to the joint statement this week by the g7+ States. You can read a report about that statement at:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2010/sep/23/millennium-development-goals-fragile-states

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Great post; really appreciate the irreverance, which is what’s missing from the CGI and otherself-aggrandizing events. As pep rallies for “innovative” initiatives they seem to have the oppositve effect of institutionalizing the fashion of the moment and thereby obstructing any truly new thinking. My suggestion for rescuing global meetings from irrelevance is to raise the issue of values and ethics and encourage debate (as well as actual research and anlysis) about what values and ethics aid programs seek to engender. In the water world, where I work, the messages of development assistance are literally dripping with neo-liberal values (need to price water to reflect its “true” cost) but without acknowledging that there are values attached to (and indeed embedded within) the new policies being promoted. Looking at the values dimension can help bring a bit more transparency (and dare we ask for it, humility?) to the proposed solutions for poverty. By looking at values we might discover that the poor are richer in some facets of life than the rich, and then focus on their real absolute poverty (clean water and decent foot and shelter) and be more humble about imposing a materialist worldview just because we happen to have one. My blog at WaterCulture.org deals with these issues (http://blog.waterculture.org)

    Posted September 26, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Na Dina wrote:

    Whispers has it that many countries will not achieve this MDG. One wonders if its all another farce to hoodwink the poorer nations who are being stripped by those that have the economic clout to further deplete resources of the poorer nations!!

    Posted September 27, 2010 at 4:16 am | Permalink
  6. 2disgusted wrote:

    So you would rather hear about what life as a poor woman in Ethiopia is like from an actual poor Ethiopian woman? Well may I suggest you do NOT get any interpreters from NGOs in the area because something WILL get lost in translation. Case in point..Video of Ethiopian woman below, in which the NGO Oxfam has completely taken her Amharic words out of context even adding details that were never said in the subtitles. See comments below the video being studiously ignored by OXFAM.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djaPFpzTABo
    A country mouse came to to visit the city mouse and said..i did not know I was poor until i got here. Sometimes you don’ t need ears or even eyes to understand how people are living. Just a heart. By the way, Ethiopians often communicate just by breath, (inhale means yes) or only their eyes. They point things out with their tongues and puckered up lips. You would have to take time to learn all these things. A government official will in any case be present or hovering somewhere in the background even if you got to talk to any Ethiopian women. So it’s not as simple as you think it is. But tell me please, I am curious….when poor Ethiopian woman are dying in their droves, either drowning in leaky dhows and dehadration in deserts trying to get to get to lives of domestic servitude, when young girls are lining the streets and back alleys of urban cities to sell their bodies..when you can hardly walk in Addis Abeba because of beggars, when mothers are pretending to be dead to give up their children for adoption..what MORE do you want to hear about what life is like for a poor Ethiopian woman????????? She is not poor enough to get your attention but can you please help FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSA..she WILL change things for women in Ethiopia because she inspires change and hope. Thank you.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  7. David Zetland wrote:

    Great job. Typical BS.

    Let’s see if they can repeal PL480.

    That will be CHANGE.

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 12:33 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] Diary of a serial summit attendee – Aid Watch – “Clinton is creating more of a pulse closing his show, which I’m watching from the press pen since they couldn’t fit half the press people into the mobbed closing session. Looking out at the audience (Oh my God that’s Mick Jagger!), Clinton quips that while “politics is show business for ugly people,” work in the non-governmental sector is “show businesses for nerds.” For this week, at least, he’s right, it’s been quite a spectacle. Thank goodness there’s 12 months until the next one.” […]

  2. By We can end poverty « O Insurgente on September 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    […] O diário.  Mais do que  ler o artigo, vale a pena seguir o site. […]

  3. […] via Diary of a serial summit attendee. […]

  4. […] The message of the new U.S. development plan is about our interests.  Obama made it clear and Shah confirmed it by saying we should see, “development as a part of our national interest.”  However, he did not answer the most important question adequately; as Laura Freschi put it: […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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