Does the emergence of global statesmen help or hinder the charity world?

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 30 June 2015 11:30 GMT

File photo of former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter (L) and Bill Clinton at the Billy Graham Library Dedication on the campus of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, North Carolina May 31, 2007. REUTERS/Chris Keane

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A furore over the Clinton Foundation has thrown a spotlight on the charitable endeavours of political heavyweights

LONDON, June 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With friends in high places and international celebrity status, the transformation of former political leaders into global statesmen able to influence the world agenda and charity spending is raising some concerns, experts say.

While some prime ministers and presidents retire quietly, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, among others, have developed second acts as global philanthropists, setting up organisations to drive their chosen agendas.

"They break the mould of former leaders ... that focused much more on national politics and explicit ideological concerns," said Andrew Cooper, author of "Diplomatic Afterlives" and political science professor at Canada's University of Waterloo.

He said these former political masters are "hyper-empowered individuals" with access to current and former national leaders as well as celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, business and technology.

While Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and others from the entertainment world attract attention as ambassadors for a humanitarian agency or a cause, former political leaders can bring both celebrity status - and a record of getting things done.

Since leaving power, Carter, Clinton and Blair have set up foundations to tackle global problems from disease to climate change, conflict and extremism to poverty.

"But what it means is there's a huge amount of messiness, a tilting toward informality (so) the legitimacy of present leaders is somewhat undercut," Cooper said.

In the past, public policy was mostly shaped by national governments and, to some extent, by donors, U.N. agencies and other multilateral organisations.

"Now you've got a whole array of actors that don't have classic legitimacy but are involved in health care, education, even to some extent environmental issues," said Cooper.

GLOBAL FREELANCERS

The furore over whether the Clinton Foundation has been sufficiently transparent in revealing its donors as Hillary campaigns for the presidency has thrown a spotlight on the charitable endeavours of political heavyweights.

Former leaders also often take lucrative positions in the commercial sector after leaving politics which has, in itself, raised eyebrows.

George Bush Sr and former British prime minister John Major both worked for U.S.-based investment firm Carlyle Group.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton both worked for international business consultancy Teneo - which has employed former British foreign minister and Conservative party leader William Hague in the past month - before creating their own global entrepreneurial freelance roles.

Tamasin Cave, from the transparency lobbying group Spinwatch, expressed concern about companies hiring outgoing politicians.

"How is the public interest served by ex-ministers taking the skills and insider knowledge they gained in government and flogging them to private interests?" she told the Sunday Times.

"There is a reason why companies hire outgoing ministers. It has become another way of buying influence."

Cooper said it is sometimes unclear which hat ex-politicians like Clinton or Blair are wearing - whether they are working for their charitable organisation or for themselves.

"They give speeches, they've made money on their books, but also they have these kind of fixer roles that get a bit murky and a bit blurry in terms of their roles," Cooper said.

"They know how governments work, they know such a wide variety of people, and yet they're released from those types of concerns, and they can operate in this freelance entrepreneurial way around the world without very many barriers," Cooper said.

It's appealing, but also "somewhat worrisome", he added.

REPUTATION

Catherina Pharoah, co-director of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School, City University London, said for charitable organisations, the association with a political figure was the same as with any celebrity - it works for as long as it works.

"If they fall out of favour, then the organisations associated with them have to suffer the reputational damage," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In March, Save the Children apologised to those it had upset by a decision by its U.S. branch to give Tony Blair a "global legacy award" last year for his work on Africa.

The decision drew criticism from inside and outside the organisation because of Blair's role in the 2003 Iraq war. Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children UK, admitted the move had damaged the charity.

Having former politicians involved in humanitarian work in conflict zones can also create problems for aid agencies who strive to convince armed groups and governments that they are independent from foreign political and military agendas.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) raised concerns in 2013 when former British foreign minister David Miliband became president of International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children appointed British Prime Minister David Cameron's wife Samantha as an ambassador.

This kind of appointment makes it even harder for aid agencies to negotiate with armed groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or al Shabaab in Somalia, according to Michiel Hofman, senior humanitarian specialist at MSF.

"These are very public appointments. You have to be careful of how this affects your image," Hofman said in an interview.

"Samantha Cameron is obviously not part of a government, but the public image it portrays is that the UK government is somehow sponsoring the actions of Save the Children and therefore it becomes more difficult to say there is no political agenda behind our humanitarian action."

Barack Obama may become the next political heavyweight to enter the fray after leaving the White House in January 2017.

"He may be tempted to have a quiet life and play golf, but there's going to be a lot of pressure on him to play the global role, and perhaps even some pressure to have material benefits from that," Cooper said. (Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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