“I think it’s impossible to be cynical at CGI,” Chelsea Clinton began, at her panel discussion Tuesday. “And given there’s such a thing as the optimism gene, it’s impossible for me to be cynical if you heard my parents last night.”
And if the big-smiled girl whose mother is at the helm of U.S. foreign policy and whose father leads the global development community says there’s reason for optimism, it must be true. At the Clinton Global Initiative, where the magnitude of the world’s problems is often outlined in excruciatingly painful details, optimism can be hard to find—though inspiration is plentiful. Panel members, however, argued that remaining optimistic while working on global issues is getting easier—and that they had plenty of reasons to keep their heads up.
The star of “The Case for Optimism in the 21st Century” session at the final day of CGI was not the daughter of Bill and Hillary, but a 15-year-old high-school boy at the forefront of cancer research who has been hailed as “our next Edison.” Jack Andraka was only in eighth grade when he started researching early detection of pancreatic cancer, and within seven months had come up with an idea that cost 3 cents, took five minutes and could instantly diagnose the disease.
When a panel including the president of the Ford Foundation and a woman who was a frontrunner for the job of head of the World Bank can’t stop praising another guest, there must be reason to be impressed. Within a few minutes Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, suggested “we should all just leave the stage and listen to Jack,” and Luis A. Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, said he felt intimidated sharing the stage with the young prodigy.
Both Okonjo-Iweala and Ubiñas had encouraging things to say about progress and the future. The world, Ubiñas said, is opening. South America is no longer the dictator-controlled region it was 40 years ago. Women are gaining equality and power. Technological advances are bringing populations from all corners of the globe together. These innovations and the ability to harness collaboration around large ideas, gives power to the individual. In the last few years, incredible technological advances and developmental innovation have progressed so quickly that many of the large-scale global problems, like land control and rural health care, are coming closer to sight. Ubiñas discussed projects he observed that use mobile phones to transfer payments and claim land rights.
Okonjo-Iweala, the progressive Nigerian minister who contended for the top job at the World Bank, encouraged CGI members not to give up on Africa, and outlined the turnaround happening in Nigeria and neighbor states. “If it can happen on that continent, it can happen anywhere in the world,” she said. (Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, echoed those sentiments later in the day, saying that genuine change is coming to Africa as six out of 10 fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa.)
The optimism was contagious as the panel discussion continued. The audience regularly broke into applause and panelists clapped for each other. “I just want to ask if anyone else is as inspired at this panel as I am,” Billy Parish, the president of a clean-energy investment marketplace called Mosaic, interjected. “I'm feeling very overwhelmed.”
Chelsea Clinton, displaying the grace of her dad, drew the session to a close with a hopeful sentiment: “All of our optimism becomes our reality.” Later, she told Charlie Rose how important it is not to get caught up or discouraged by the challenges. “We always need to be looking forward,” she said.
The philanthropic, political, and celebrity bigwigs turning up for President Clinton’s annual confab probably wouldn’t be dedicating so much time and effort toward a more peaceful, empowered, and sustainable world if they didn’t believe that.