We live in history’s most interdependent age, in which borders look more like nets than walls, and our actions have consequences on others, around the corner and around the world. For all its positive aspects, the age of interdependence presents profound challenges to our shared future for three reasons: It has too much economic and social inequality within and between nations; it is too unstable, as problems from terrorism to the financial crisis to computer viruses spread across the world at lightning speed; and it is unsustainable because the way we produce and consume energy is destabilizing the climate in ways that will impact us all. Therefore, the primary challenge facing people everywhere is to build the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence.
This work must be done by governments, private sector groups and individual citizens, who can be most effective by participating in the nongovernmental organization (NGO) movement sweeping the world. America has about a million NGOs, a legacy of citizen action inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who organized the first volunteer fire department even before our constitution was ratified. If government did not meet some need, Americans would complain for a few days, then get together and fix the problem. Now citizen action is a global phenomenon, with millions of NGOs active on every continent.
First, NGOs make an impact by stepping into the gap between what the private sector can produce and what government can provide. That’s Franklin’s volunteer fire department, or the local United Way. In Chappaqua, N.Y., where Hillary and I live, our home is served by a volunteer fire department.
Second, they push for changes in government policy or private sector activity. That’s what political parties, labor and human rights groups, and issue advocacy organizations do.
Third, NGOs work on their own or with government and the private sector to find new ways to meet common challenges faster, at less cost, with better results. Unencumbered by the private sector’s imperative to turn a quarterly profit or the public sector’s aversion to making mistakes, NGOs are uniquely positioned to answer the ‘how’ questions: how to turn our good intentions into positive change in people’s lives.
The Strength of Systems
The ‘how’ questions manifest themselves differently in rich and poor nations. Poor nations require systems that reward good conduct and creative initiative – effective and honest government, and productive education, health, environmental and development systems. That’s what we have to do in Haiti – build systems that reward hardworking and talented people who have struggled without them for two centuries.
In wealthy nations, the problem is the reverse. They have systems which paved the way to prosperity, but have become too rigid as, inevitably, people at the top of the pyramid become more interested in preserving their positions than in advancing the purposes for which the systems were established, more interested in holding on to present gain than putting some of it at risk to create a better future.
In the U.S., we need reforms in our budget, finance, energy, education and health systems to restore America’s ability to keep the American Dream of a middle-class life alive for future generations and to maintain our leading role in the 21st century world.
My foundation works in the U.S. and around the world to answer the ‘how’ questions: in the U.S., how to reverse our number one public health problem, childhood obesity; how to conserve and produce energy in ways that grow the economy; how to empower small businesses to thrive in difficult environments. Globally, we work on how to build health systems and combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis at the lowest possible cost; how to maximize local economic growth, energy self-sufficiency and educational opportunity. The Clinton Global Initiative is creating a global network of NGOs committed to doing this work.
While I am heartened by these efforts, it is difficult to imagine the 21st century becoming what it should be, prosperous, peaceful, secure and free, without an American resurgence. America has to get back in the future business, beginning with putting our fiscal house in order, sensible implementation of the financial reform and health care reform bills, and maximizing energy efficiency and clean energy production. We can do all these things, if our citizens know enough and care enough to follow Ben Franklin’s lead, and put themselves on the line.
Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, is the founder of the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Economic Freedom is Foundation of All Other Freedoms (The Heritage Foundation)
Economics in an Age of Fracture (The Chronicle of Higher Education)