The Changing Face of Service

We live in a time when no single government or alliance of nations can alone solve the scandal of poverty, the warming of our planet or the scourge of disease. Human and natural disasters require something more to fill the enormous gaps between people's needs and the capacity of bureaucracies to meet them. This explains why we've seen non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, proliferate.

Thank heavens. Populated by passionate experts and funded by philanthropic grants and widows' mites alike, these organizations are civil society's collective conscience. They represent the best of humanity in those dark and often dangerous places where the worst of humanity and Nature are on full display. One of the best NGOs of the 21st century deserves more attention for its efforts to combat today's most pressing global issues from HIV/AIDS to climate change. It's the Clinton Foundation, founded by my good friend, President Bill Clinton.

I know how strongly he believes, as he has said many times, that "in our interdependent world, we are all responsible for our neighbors, even if they live half a world away." It's generally well known how he has brought governments, businesses, charitable organizations and individual volunteers together in common purpose.

What's much less known are the foundation's early accomplishments. It has given small businesses from Harlem to Ghana the opportunity to survive and prosper. It has worked with the American Heart Association to help children avoid the hazards of obesity. It is assisting more than 40 of the world's largest cities combat climate change. And through the Clinton Global Initiative, a unique gathering of human beings committed to move from words to deeds, thousands of corporations and citizens have committed to relieve some of Earth's most intractable problems.

Simply consider the Foundation's HIV/AIDS initiative. In the past six years alone, it has helped save the lives of nearly a million and a half children and adults in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. How? First, it recognized the yawning chasm between the number of people needing medicine to survive the ravages of AIDS and those with access to that medicine. Second, it knew the price of that medicine proved a huge barrier to bridging that chasm. And third, it realized that delivering medicine to the people who needed it required construction of a strong infrastructure that would last years.

President Clinton and his foundation team set about meeting those challenges head on. They negotiated with the drug companies to lower the price of HIV tests and treatment dramatically; completed memorandums of understanding with governments and organizations to deliver medicine and aid and to provide expertise and equipment to make those deliveries work; and inspired thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of contributors to bring both financial and people power to bear on this great cause.

What's happened? The price of pediatric HIV/AIDS drugs has dropped by nearly 90 percent. As a result, the number of children receiving life-saving treatment in the 33 countries where the Foundation is at work has doubled to more than 130,000. To me, these are not simply numbers. They represent the faces of boys and girls I have met, the families in rural communities I have visited, and a reason to believe in a brighter future for people and places where such optimism has been in such short supply.

At a time when the global economic landscape looks so bleak, it is especially fortunate that these non-governmental organizations are going where governments can't go to bring hope and combat hopelessness to so many people in need. We must celebrate their progress and communicate their advances, no matter how small they may seem to some. Believe me, they aren't small to those in the forgotten places or those neglected people of our time.

I look forward to the coming inauguration of Barack Obama, whose election as president has lifted the spirits of so many people worldwide. I am pleased that he has chosen Hillary Clinton as the next Secretary of State, because she has an abundance the virtues and skills needed for the task at this moment in history. I also am grateful that the profoundly consequential work of NGOs such as the Clinton Foundation will continue to serve the interests of humankind.