The Goldie Company

Clinton calls on non-profits to fill gaps left by government and business

Tuesday May 17, 2011

There always has been, and always will be, many things that neither the private sector nor the government can provide, says former U.S. president Bill Clinton. But today’s problems are so big that the need for non-governmental organizations to fill that gap has never been more acute.

That’s the message he delivered at the Community Foundations of Canada conference I attended in Vancouver last week. Clinton is a friend of Frank Giustra, the Vancouver-based mining magnate who donated $100 million to create the Clinton-Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative. And Giustra is a friend of the host city’s Vancouver Foundation.

So what are these big problems that the man who once held the most powerful office on earth now seeks volunteer help to solve?

The first, he said, is inequality.

“Half the world’s population still live on less than $2 a day. A billion people go to bed hungry every night. A billion people have no access to clean water. Two and a half billion people have no access to sanitation.

“And even in some of the wealthiest countries, access to mental health services, support for the developmentally disabled and the crisis of homelessness -these are persistent problems.

“In the United States from World War II to 1980, the bottom 90 per cent of our working people consistently claimed 65 per cent of the nation’s income. The top 10 per cent [got] 35 per cent, the top one per cent nine per cent.

“That was enough inequality to spur people to be creative, to create businesses, to succeed. And enough equality to enable us to build an enormous middle class and rise to first in the world in the percentage of our young people with four-year college degrees.

Since 1980, “The bottom 90 per cent’s share of income has gone from 65 per cent to 52 per cent. The top 10 per cent from 35 per cent to 48 per cent. And the top one per cent has gone from nine to 22 per cent.”

The second big issue, he said, is instability. Not just terrorism -though that’s part of it -but also diseases like SARS that can spread globally in very little time, or the financial crisis that spilled across borders.

“The trick is to have enough play in the system to have creativity, but not so much instability that people like you [in non-profit organizations] are overwhelmed by people who are coping with problems they can’t possibly deal with.”

The last big problem he singled out is the unsustainability of how we produce and consume energy.

Climate change is real, he said. And it has the potential to sorely damage even the world’s well-functioning economies.

The non-profit sector is, in some ways, better positioned than either business or government to deal with aspects of these challenges.

“Unlike the private sector, we don’t have to turn a profit in a short amount of time.” And if things go wrong, “unlike the government, we don’t have to be quite as worried about a bad story in the newspapers.”

He also commented that Canada was not as impacted as the US and other countries during the economic crisis because our Banks have “systems” in place to prevent such a thing from happening here. He added that developing nations need “systems” if they are to move forward economically.