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Bill Clinton: What the world needs now

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More than advocacy, what the world needs now is a "how generation" that can translate high hopes into practical solutions to the planet's health, environmental and economic problems—before the problems destroy it.

That was the message of former President Bill Clinton, who spoke Monday morning to an audience of about 6,000 at N.C. State University's Reynolds Coliseum. His theme was the world's increasing interdependence, which, while bringing people closer, puts them in dangerous conflict with one other.

The impacts of interdependence are good and bad, Clinton said, adding they are "more good, or you wouldn't be here." Nonetheless, Clinton warned that the globalization of the financial system is adding to the world's growing inequality. That imbalance, he said, is making the world highly unstable and "more combustible."

However, Clinton did not mention that while in office, he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which resulted in mass defections of U.S. companies to Mexico, where corporations paid lower wages and were not subject to strict environmental and labor laws or high tariffs. North Carolina was one of many states that suffered massive manufacturing losses as textile plants closed and relocated south of the border, and some, eventually, to even lower-wage Asian countries.

(President George H. W. Bush initially negotiated NAFTA.)

Clinton likened the world he sees today to the America he has experienced since the election of President Barack Obama. "It's hard to imagine a more hopeful time," he said, "and yet a more frustrating time."

The United States has overcome hoary racial, ethnic and religious barriers and is ready to "move forward together," Clinton said, while the country is watching the global banking system implode and wipe out $27 trillion in wealth—equivalent to half the world's annual income, he said—in five months.

It was an extension of Clinton's (and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's) "Third Way" philosophy, attempting to bridge government and the private sector. Clinton in 1996 famously pronounced an end to "the era of big government." But free-market solutions won't solve the world's problems either, the former president argued. What's needed is a vigorous nonprofit or NGO (non-governmental organizations) sector able to brainstorm solutions and then get help from governments, businesses or both to bring them to scale.

Worldwide, the financial crisis has exacerbated serious nuclear, terrorist and narco-criminal threats, Cinton said, and needs to be understood against a background of global poverty that existed even before the current calamity: Half the world exists on incomes of less than $2 a day, Clinton said; one death in four is from diseases contracted from dirty water or other preventable causes.

Finally, the world faces imminent environmental danger, the result of our unsustainable living practices and consequent global warming, he said.

Clinton suggested that the world's political systems aren't up to dealing with the issues, and that the pace of change is such that they won't catch up soon.

The financial meltdown could've been averted, he argued for example, if our federal government had responded more quickly to the U.S. mortgage crisis, either alone or with other nations pushing it and helping.

"If we'd done it a year ago," he said, "90 percent of this never would've happened."

But world governments aren't that nimble and don't coordinate very well, he said, which is why nations can't solve the world's problems alone, and why a "how movement in America" is needed.

The William J. Clinton Foundation is such an enterprise, he said. It's tackling, among other initiatives, the problem of how to rid the world of its landfills, including those in Mumbai, India. (Clinton touted Slumdog Millionaire as his movie of the year, and recalled the opening scene in which the kids run across a seemingly endless landfill in Mumbai.)

His foundation is working there, he said, "but you could be working in North Carolina" getting rid of your landfills, he told his audience. And not just advocating their removal; the task is to figure out "how to" replace them—and then do it.

Clinton cited www.kiva.org as an example of two young people who saw a problem—lack of working capital in third-world countries—and figured out a way to address it. The Web site links willing lenders with vetted borrowers in poor nations like Afghanistan. The lenders aren't giving their money away; they get repaid with interest "in a personally accountable system that goes all over the world," Clinton said.

The challenge for Americans now is to realize that a vote or campaign contribution for Obama isn't enough; we must become personally responsible for making the world better.

"If we do that," he concluded, the world will be "just fine."

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