Former President Bill Clinton opened the Clinton Global Initiative meeting at the University of Miami, Friday. The initiative, begun in 2007, aims to encourage students and universities to come up with innovative solutions to solve global problems.
In order to attend CGI U a student must make a "Commitment to Action" detailing steps they will take to resolve a global issue. Mr. Clinton described this year's series of commitments as "the best yet."
According to CGI, over 1,700 committments have been made during its annual meetings. They are valued at over $57 billion and have had a positive impact on over 220 million people living in 170 countries.
About 1,500 people including university students, NGOs and university presidents from the U.S. and abroad are attending this year's three-day conference. In addition music, film and sports celebrities will participate in workshops and meetings focused on issues such as education, climate change, the environment, human rights, poverty alleviation and global health. This year's meeting will put special emphasis on earthquake-stricken Haiti.
"I want to say a special word of thanks for the university's response to Haiti with which I have been very much involved," Clinton said.
During Friday's opening session, which sought to ignite the "social imagination," President Clinton spoke about his work as special U.N. envoy for Haiti.
"The whole idea is to create global networks of people who are committed to doing good as private citizens. You really have the power to change the world," President Clinton told the audience. "It's becoming increasingly clear that you don't have to be personally wealthy to do it. In the recent response in the United States alone to the earthquake in Haiti, more than half of American households made a contribution."
Clinton said many donations were made through the Internet and via text messaging. He hosts a private luncheon Saturday for the university presidents in attendance - among them six Haitian university presidents.
Gerard Dorcely, president of the Universite de Port-au-Prince says his school was completely devastated by the January 12 earthquake. He hopes the conference will provide new ideas on how he might rebuild and inspire young people to continue their studies.
"I don't know what the outcome will be," Dorcely said. "I think we need to re-think our university because when the January 12 catastrophe struck, we didn't have any response. A university should serve as a guide during a crisis."
The opening session Friday evening, featured a panel of two university students whose commitments during previous Global Initiatives resulted in projects that are helping to provide micro-loans to Palestinians entrepreneurs in Israel, and build "green" cars that significantly reduce the carbon footprint. R&B artist Usher, who was scheduled to participate but was unable to do so, was replaced by Hip-Hop artist Pharell. He spoke about his "Kidults" program encouraging young people to get an education and stay out of jail. He also talked about his clothing line which uses recycled plastic to make fabric. The fourth panel member was U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.
University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services during the Clinton administration, said she hopes attendees will be inspired by ideas presented at CGI U and share them with young people in their communities.
"We are delighted to host the Clinton Global University on our campus," she said. "This is no ordinary time and you are not ordinary young people. Over the next three days, you will be thinkers who are doers. President Clinton is a world class thinker and a world-class doer."
Among the "doers" Shalala spoke about, were Anne Marie Warmenhoven of Florida International University and Camille Kremer of the University of Miami. Together, they started an urban sustainable garden movement in Haiti called "Rasin Lavil Bay Lavi" (Urban Roots Give Life) in connection with SOIL. President Clinton called them to the stage and lauded their work in Haiti.
"It's a tremendous honor," Kremer said.
"I think President Clinton has done a lot for the country of Haiti and I think he has a real committment to Haiti," added Warmenhoven. "So I think that his support is something that will help us move from idea to action, which is one of the themes of this conference."
In keeping with that spirit, hip-hop artist Pharell energized the audience with a call to action.
"Let's stop talking about it, let's just do it," Pharell said.
The audience responded with cheers.