As first-time participants, AWID and FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund share reflections on the recent Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and ask readers to reflect with us on engaging in global agenda-setting spaces like CGI.
By Angelika Arutyunova, Lydia Alpizar and Amina Doherty
AWID and FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund attended the recent Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York City. In this Friday File we share reflections on the CGI space and some of the trends that are relevant for our work on gender equality, women’s rights and justice. The terrain is complex, the actors diverse and the pace fast — AWID and FRIDA ask whether, and how, women’s organizations and movements should collaboratively engage at the CGI and other such agenda-setting spaces.
What is the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and who is involved?
Established in 2005, CGI is a “by invitation only” space with tremendous convening capacity, bringing together heads of state, CEOs of major corporations, foundation presidents, heads of multilateral organizations and large international NGOs, celebrities, and leaders representing a diversity of other private sector actors and civil society organizations, “to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. By fostering partnerships, providing strategic advice, and driving resources toward effective ideas…”. 
To be eligible to join CGI and participate in its Annual Meeting, members must make a “commitment to action”. Since its establishment, CGI members have made more than 2,300 commitments valued at 73.1 billion USD. Commitments range from reducing packaging and conserving energy (Walmart), to funding 12 Special Olympics for people with intellectual disabilities worldwide (Paychex Corporation and Special Olympics International), to Goldman Sach’s “10,000 Women” program.
How did discussions at CGI relate to women and women’s rights?
The theme for CGI’s 2012 Annual Meeting was “Designing for Impact”, asking, “How can we design our world to create more opportunity and more equality? How are we designing our lives, our environments, and the global systems we employ in order to impact the challenges at hand?”In addition to a specific track on women and girls, the role of women in development was woven throughout the entire meeting—in plenaries and specific sessions. The eight sessionsspecifically focused on women and girls included topics such as security, empowering girls, and the economy and microfinance.
While the visibility of women and girls at the CGI meeting was welcome, the discourse and approaches presented varied greatly. Although human rights rarely featured overtly in the space, several individuals (including some from the corporate sector) were interested in understanding and discussing rights-based approaches. The language around women’s roles was largely ‘women as economic resources’, emphasizing the need “to unleash their full potential”. Most discussions around women and youth did not touch on root causes of discrimination, oppression, violence, lack of environmental sustainability and other systemic issues impacting women’s lives.
In response to the way much of the discourse around “investing in young women and girls” was framed, Amina Doherty (Coordinator of FRIDA) coined the term ‘Generation ROI’ (i.e. Returns on Investments), in other words a generation of young women who will come to see themselves simply as means to broader economic ends. Doherty says: “We must move in these spaces to encourage increased support to young women and girls not simply because it is ‘smart economics’ but because gender equality is a right.” Similarly, it is important to continue to push beyond the ‘investing in women’ framing so that women’s needs and priorities are the primary drivers in the selection of strategies and interventions.
Private sector approaches and ‘business solutions’ to global problems have a prominent role within CGI. There was widespread support for privatization (of education and other systems, as well as privatization as generally helpful for development), moving from ‘aid to investment’, and emphasis on ‘high impact’ and ‘scalability’, including in relation to ‘investing in women.’ There was also strong support for ‘collaborative solutions’ in the form of public-private partnerships.
This emphasis on the private sector is echoed in spaces at the UN and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD ) dealing with financing for development and development effectiveness; and is also increasingly reflected in the frameworks, language, policies and practices of the philanthropic sector. The ‘aid to investment’ rhetoric is particularly important in debates around the post 2015 agenda, where many actors will likely be promoting public private partnerships as key mechanisms for ‘the future we want’.
For organizations that support women’s rights, the prominence of these approaches raises some concerns. At the CGI meeting, there was little, if any, discussion on the role of private sector actors in creating some of the problems being mentioned and the lack of adequate mechanisms for holding them accountable. At the same time, a nuanced critique is needed, given the diversity of the sector. There are examples of private sector initiatives and collaborative efforts among the CGI commitments that have had important impacts in areas such as access to drinking water, child vaccination and immunization, and support for people with disabilities. Other initiatives are more clearly linked to agendas of corporate self-interest. For example, the ‘5 By 20’ Campaignlaunched by Coca-Cola at the CGI in 2010, partners with civil society and private sector actors to support 5 million women by 2020 through: empowering women entrepreneurs (that sell Coca-Cola) to strengthen job training, skills, and to link to mentors and strengthen business networks—thus supporting women in their supply chain and also expanding the distribution of Coca-Cola.
Should we engage? If so, how?
Bringing together some of the most influential minds and wallets in the world, the CGI is clearly becoming a powerful agenda-setting space with important ripple effects for the work and struggles of women’s rights movements globally. Debates within CGI offer further indications of the fast-paced shifts in thinking around development and social change, including work for women’s rights and gender equality, with diverse private actors playing significant roles. More than just a meeting space, the CGI is also gaining traction as a trendsetting space for funding priorities and modalities.
AWID and FRIDA followed debates at the CGI for close to a year before being invited to join this year’s meeting. We decided to accept the invitation to try to bring an alternative approach and discourse around economic empowerment and women’s rights and to learn more about these spaces that are outside our ‘comfort zone’ as feminists and women’s rights advocates, but where so many decisions are being made that are relevant to our agendas. Being at the CGI Annual Meeting allowed us to get a closer look at the dynamics among the actors present as well as trends that emerge in that space. It allowed us to learn about the diversity of private sector actors and agendas at play, as well as the possibilities for finding common ground in some cases.
We also recognized the potential to shift engagement in these spaces by taking a collective movement-based approach with allies also participating in CGI, such as Breakthrough, The Global Fund for Women, The Central American Women’s Fund and women’s rights advocates such as Nobel peace laureate Leymah Gbowee and feminist philanthropist Abigail Disney. Influence from these kinds of actors helped to ensure that a women’s rights agenda and discourse were not only present, but also acknowledged.
Undeniably, the fast pace at which ‘new’ actors are coming in to support women and development, coupled with their access to significant resources and mainstream media in the North raise questions about the extent to which women’s rights groups, with limited capacity and resources, can effectively engage and influence such initiatives. However, not engaging hardly seems a viable option. If we are not there, our experience and analysis remain invisible and unrecognized in the agendas that emerge. Consider the reflection of one speaker from a plenary of the 2011 CGI Annual Meeting: “we need to develop a whole new movement which [will] get us to achieve gender equality which is the unfinished agenda of this century.”This statement is a clear example of how our history can be erased and our struggles overlooked if we are not engaged and bringing to bear in these spaces the insights from decades of women’s rights organizing. Ultimately, the key question seems less about whether we should be engaging but rather the extent of engagement that we consider strategic; and what we expect to achieve by engaging.
As feminists and women’s rights advocates, we must reflect on some important questions that have not recently been part of our debates: How do we see the role of private sector actors in development in the current context? What are our positions about public private partnerships being advanced at so many levels, both in North and South? Can we navigate this complex scenario in ways that are true to our values and agendas and help us advance our work? Are we engaging in these spaces merely for mobilising more resources for gender equality and women’s rights organizing? Do we also need to be there to ensure that more voices and stories from women’s groups and activists working on the ground are heard, visible, recognized and shaping these agendas? Can we become protagonists in shaping the discourse around women’s rights in these powerful agenda-setting spaces? What are the implications of staying out of such spaces going forward?
We take to heart Bhumika Muchhala’s words at the recent launch of the special SID-AWID issue (53:3) of the journal Development, “we must be present in as many spaces as we can. We must ensure our voices are there and that they are heard. Part of the revolution is simply showing up.”
As AWID and FRIDA reflect on our first formal engagement with CGI and grapple with possible future strategies, we would very much appreciate your own reflections and ideas on these questions.
*Cross-posted from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development: http://awid.org/eng/News-Analysis/Friday-Files/The-Clinton-Global-Initiative-Learning-and-Reflections-from-AWID-and-FRIDA#.UIF0UkmjZrc.twitter
 Many of them based in the North, but some Southern-based as well
 “About us: Clinton Global Initiative.” 10 October 2012. Web:http://www.clintonfoundation.org/main/our-work/by-initiative/clinton-global-initiative/about.html
 For information on commitments made, see:http://www.clintonglobalinitiative.org/commitments/
 These include the sessions: Women Transforming Security: The Untapped Resource; How can we advance women-owned businesses in the developing world?; Designing for Consumers at the Base of the Pyramid; Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide; Women in the Economy: What We’ve Learned and Where We’re Headed; Women and the Built Environment: Designing for Opportunity; Empowering Girls Through Education; Integrating Women into Global Supply Chains; Uncovering the Multiplier Effect of Investing in Women.
 a quote from session description: Half the Sky
 “BRAC Founder & Chairperson talks about scaling up at CGI 2011” 23 September, 2011. 5 July 2012. Web: http://blog.brac.net/2011/09/sir-fazle-abed-brac-chairperson-cgi.html#.T_VasHCxxwY