State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Preparing Future Leaders through Partnerships

The Opening Plenary Session showcasing the speakers and members of the 2015 conference
The opening plenary session showcasing the speakers and members of the 2015 conference.

As Hillary Clinton launches her presidential campaign, the entire Clinton family and their growing social enterprises are under watchful eyes. Former President Bill Clinton has emerged as one of the most recognizable figures in the world and a global ambassador. The Clinton family has leveraged its visibility and networks to apply financial and other resources toward social, health, economic, and environmental challenges globally. An institutional framework has gradually expanded around these collaborations. The Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative have essentially institutionalized partnerships between the Clinton family, donors, various institutions, and communities around the world.

The Clinton Foundation, a large-scale philanthropy founded by President Clinton, is not without its critics. But we cannot easily lose sight of the positive impact that the foundation has had. Substantial financial commitments from various governments, and the potential conflicts of interest they might bring, could be cause for concern. But are the Clintons’ philanthropic initiatives actually impacting the social concerns they purport to address? Regardless of one’s feelings about the Clintons, they are able to convene leaders from all corners of the globe and connect them in order to collaborate on various important concerns. During Clinton events, commitments made by global leaders, conference participants, and students that are in turn supported by donors, large organizations and universities, create a single network of partnerships working to solve problems we face as a global community.

The Clinton Global Initiative, a philanthropic venture that brings together world leaders to “create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges” has gained widespread recognition. Building upon the initiative’s successful model, the Clinton Global Initiative University provides a unique opportunity for students. The goal is to empower and inspire youth to engage in conversation around tackling the world’s most pressing issues.

The latest CGI U conference, held March 6-8, brought together not only students but also influential leaders of their respective fields. With an overarching focus on the role of technology in the students’ work, topics included reforestation efforts for Haiti, coastal resilience solutions for Florida’s wetlands, mobile food trucks for disadvantaged areas, and new mobile apps to address issues of public health. With over 1,100 students from 80 countries and 200 universities, conversations and partnerships were bound to spark.

To date, 5,500 commitments to action have been made. These commitments are innovative ideas that have measurable results. They address five focus areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health. Students follow through on these commitments and share them with the global communities they are hoping to affect.

A MBA student from San Diego State University, for example, launched Solo Eyewear in 2011; this initiative has impacted 10,000 people across 32 countries by giving them access to quality eye care. Their business model donates the funds to provide eye care to people in need for every pair of retail sunglasses sold. Solo Eyewear leveraged the resources presented to them through their network of peers, school and the Clinton Global Initiative University.

The 2015 “university” partnered with The Resolution Project. Over $900,000 in commitments was raised for the March 2015 conference. Funding came from the universities and organizations that the global initiative projects work with. The Resolution Project, through their Social Venture Challenges, tasks young leaders to create business plans for projects they believe can socially benefit communities around the world.

What is important to distinguish is the impact that the Clinton Global Initiative University is having on the student participants versus the communities it claims it is impacting. The benefit to the students is clear: the gathering allows them to take the skills they have learned in the classroom and develop them by way of building networks and partnerships with one another. That these young leaders are committed to creating solutions to the world’s problems is clear. What is not clear is the actual number of people positively affected by the students’ commitments.

A group of students showcase their Commitment to Action, the "Malaria Awareness Program", at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting
A group of students showcase their Commitment to Action, the “Malaria Awareness Program,” at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting.

The statistics utilized by the foundation are those of number of Commitments to Action (5,500), number of student participants in the conference (7,500 over seven past conferences) and universities represented (875). While this quantifies the impact the initiative is having on students, it tells us very little about the impact these Commitments to Action are having on the communities they seek to help. The Solo Eyewear case does show both students and in-need communities benefitting; and there are other, smaller successes. But are they enough to quantify a successful model? Regardless, the initiative’s “university” is an important venture in nurturing student leadership growth.

Johns Hopkins University students Miguel Dias, Yadel Okorie and Samantha (Yu) Wang presented their Bright Energy Africa and stepped up to the challenge this year, winning $5,000 in seed money from The Resolution Project to jumpstart their venture: smokeless fuel briquettes made from agricultural waste. As a substitute for commonly used coal, the briquettes decrease carbon monoxide and other emissions and could potentially improve people’s health. Bright Energy Africa has the potential, through micro-franchises of the briquette centers, to create hundreds of jobs in Tanzania, with the ultimate goal of becoming “100 percent owner-controlled in Tanzania.”

Columbia University student Chenyan Lu wants to promote tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean among Chinese travelers. She has developed Based in Jamaica and Ecuador, Lu’s website will provide a virtual information center, booking portal and a souvenir shop. The success of the commitment will be evaluated using metrics such as individual visits to the website and number of destinations she expands to.

Every participating university, like the University of Arkansas, readily publicizes and supports the Clinton Global Initiative University student participants, celebrating its mission and the work produced. Also emphasized are the lessons learned in leadership, entrepreneurship, and forging partnerships. Batoul Abuharb, a student at the University of Houston, was quoted by the university’s Center for Student Involvement saying, “[The program] is an excellent opportunity for students with new ideas to get feedback from their peers, learn from the firsthand experiences of others interested in the same field as them, and understand the detailed work that goes into having a successful project.”

A student participates in the "Day of Action" community service project in conjunction with Miami Children's Initiative in Liberty City
A student participates in the “Day of Action” community service project in conjunction with Miami Children’s Initiative in Liberty City.

Perhaps most striking about the venture is the rate at which students uphold their commitments. Students who attend the conference keep a progress report of their commitments and are provided with a community mentor, who provides advice to help refine the commitments to ensure scalability and realistic goals. This mentorship teaches students early on how to create and more importantly, maintain and leverage, partnerships to get work done.

The participating students received a real-world lesson in the value and complexity of partnership and collaboration. Partnerships forged at the gathering between these students are friendships that may one day turn into partnerships for projects that could enhance our global community.

Samantha Spilka co-authored this post. She is pursuing her master of international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She holds a BA in psychology from San Diego State University and an MA in organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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