“We realized that we can multiply our impact if we use the network of people here,” Mr. Mahbubani says. “What took maybe six months to do here would have taken three years if we'd gone monkeying around by ourselves.”
The price of attendance is very steep, involving an obligatory pledge, but for smaller players such as the Mahbubanis, it is the ticket into a tight-knit network that combines world-transforming idealism with elite connections.
What is new in the Clinton approach, but now widely imitated, is that the ex-president's group does almost nothing on the ground itself. Instead, it persuades others to join forces and take action, whether they're private- or public-sector, religious or corporate or volunteer. The range of commitments is huge, from “rebuild Pakistan” to “empower girls and women,” as well as the famous Clinton commitments to fight AIDS and fix Haiti – or, rather, to get others to do so.
Unlike the older charities, they hope to create local economic conditions that make it unnecessary to have permanent agency headquarters in poor countries and regions. “You want to be in there so you're working yourself out of a job,” Mr. Clinton says.
For their part, the Mahbubanis linked up with the Internet-driven charity Water.org, founded in part by actor Matt Damon, which seeks to provide clean water in poor countries. And they struck a deal with Invenio, a California-based social enterprise that uses an entrepreneurial model to provide solar-powered Internet access in dirt-poor rural areas (while technically a non-profit, it otherwise operates like a corporation).
The couple don't just give money to these organizations. They actively take part in their projects and activities, linking their interests with the varied objectives of their partners. “We didn't want to be a foundation that gives money to charity and never knows how it will be used,” Ms. Mahbubani says. “We wanted to do this in a businesslike way. I questioned that approach at first, because this is philanthropy – it's different from the business world. But it has worked.”
That sense of unease about the private-sector-dominated philanthropy pioneered by Mr. Clinton is shared by a lot of people. In Haiti, for example, the initiative has been criticized for having brought in flawed shelters that happen to be manufactured by a company owned by one of the Clinton members.
In traditional philanthropy, there was a stark line between the capitalist activities of the benefactors and the altruistic activities of their chosen causes. The Clintonites have blurred the line, and perhaps erased it forever.
For a vivid example, consider Thomas Nagy, executive vice-president of the Danish-based multinational biotech company Novozymes. One of his tasks is to oversee its social enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa: In Mozambique, and soon in other countries, Novozymes has mounted a huge venture to end the reliance of poor villagers and slum-dwellers on indoor charcoal stoves – a practice that creates chronic health problems and ecological destruction, both from the stoves themselves and from the charcoal-making trade, which destroys forests and belches out tonnes of carbon.
Novozymes is replacing tens of thousands of family cookstoves with gas stoves. It is also paying the charcoal makers to become cash-crop farmers, while helping set up markets for their crops.
If it works, the project is unquestionably beneficial to huge numbers of people. But nobody is pretending it's a purely altruistic venture. One of Novozymes's businesses is converting farm crops into ethanol fuel. The charcoal makers will be taught to grow plants Novozymes can buy for that purpose, such as cassava. And the gas stoves in turn will create a large new untapped market in ethanol cylinders, assuring future markets for Novozymes.
“This is for profit. It is a social venture, designed to assemble an entire value chain,” Mr. Nagy says. “We are assembling a sustainable agricultural food and energy system with a supply chain that serves real needs, is more healthy and increases rural income and livelihood. It will have both a profit and a social and ecological benefit.”
Replacing the fuel economy of an entire nation is a kind of project that no charity or UN agency or foreign government would ever have attempted. The new profit-friendly philanthropy is built around such coincidences of interest – or conflicts, depending on your perspective.