The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt
While the rest of the country went about its morning chores on April 5, an unusual meeting was taking place at the Taj Residency Ummed Hotel, Ahmedabad. The 9.30 am meeting, organised by the recently established cash-rich American India Foundation, attempted to shortlist non-governmental organisations that would spearhead its relief work in earthquake-ravaged Gujarat. More than the agenda, what made the meeting extraordinary was its chairman, William Jefferson Clinton III, who, until barely three months ago, was president of the most powerful country in the world.
Clinton, though, was late. So Nita Ambani began by informally introducing herself and her work. She was followed by more experienced social workers like Ela Bhatt (Self Employed Women's Association), Karsan Patel (chairman, Nirma Group; head of the Nirma Institute of Technology in Ahmedabad) and Sushma Iyengar (general secretary, Abhiyan, which heads 14 NGO groups working in Kutch). By the time Clinton walked in 70 minutes later, the meeting was in full swing.
Even as he acknowledged the applause, the former president refused to let the meeting go off track. "When we started this effort," he began by immediately referring to the AIF, "there was huge energy. People wanted to help. They donated several million dollars. What is important now is for us to see how much good this money can do."
He then went on to share what he had witnessed in devastated Gujarat. "We realised that even if we collect $100 million, it may not be enough for us to do what we want to do. Many things need to be done and we need to support the NGOs who are playing an important role here. In this way, we shall be able to monitor the use of our funds and report to our investors."
What he did not talk about, though, was the hopes his visit has raised in the hearts of the people of Gujarat.
"What I am saying is," he continued, "that we basically want to do whatever is most needed and will have the most positive impact on people's sufferings. We want to develop a model. We will take the score card to our investors. So, tell me, what would you do if you were in our place?"
Among the options that were offered, it was Sushma Iyengar's unique response that caught the former president's attention. "We need to trust the people, and not the NGOs, with this money," she said. "If I were you, I would identify the villages where the communities are strong and offer it a 'village rehabilitation fund'. Set them a target, set a system in place and only use the NGOs to facilitate the process. Even if we are able to identify only 10 villages, let them decide on their rehabilitation needs. If they know we can offer them Rs 50 lakh to facilitate this process, I can assure you they will do a much, much better job than any of us here!"
Clinton, it was clear, was impressed. After the meeting, he caught up with Iyengar. "I liked what you said. Why don't you put it on paper and send it across?"
All of which seemed very normal, except for one question. Why was the former president of the world's only superpower chairing a meeting of Indian NGOs in earthquake-ravaged Gujarat? Would Britain's Margaret Thatcher chair such a meeting in Brazil? Or the former Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev in any east European country?
Why, then, is Clinton in a country that clearly is not at the top of the US government's priority list? Post-presidency, he does have a plethora of choices. He is quite in demand on the lecture circuit; he has even been offered around $2 million for a lecture series in Japan. Besides, he is said to be writing his memoirs.
For eight years, Clinton held in his hands the power to destroy the world several times over. Now here he was, seriously participating in a debate that attempted to define how Gujarat could be best rehabilitated. In his passion to be known as a peacemaker Clinton spent the last days of his presidency desperately brokering talks between Israel and Palestine. Yet, on Thursday, he was trying to resolve an issue whose ultimate decision depended on the mood of a taluka development officer.
As president, Clinton used his irresistible personal skills and undeniable intelligence in security meetings that decided the quantum of American deployment in Bosnia. The same man now was listening to a grassroots worker attempting to explain his version of the best possible relief measures for an earthquake so devastating that more than two months later its victims are still reeling. Who was using his formidable intellectual skills to understand the NGOs' psyche and their expectations from the AIF.
Crediting with turning the American economy around -- and reviving Indo-US relations -- he was now listening to Nita Ambani recount her "experiences in relief and reconstruction operations" despite the fact that Dhirubhai's daughter-in-law has barely a couple of years' experience in the field. He made his commitment to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of an area where development -- when not supported by the local government -- has been a long-lost dream.
Accompanying him at the main table were Rajat Gupta, managing director, McKinsey, while Ashok Alexander, director, McKinsey, served as moderator. Nita Ambani, complete with prepared notes and light-coloured make-up, sat next to Gupta. Two chairs away, simply dressed in an ethnic green saree, was Sushma Iyengar. Next to her were Ela Bhatt and Karsanbhai Patel. Also at the table were Sunil Handa (the Eklavya Foundation), Dr Vimala Ramalingam (secretary general, Red Cross, India), Janak Dave (the Swaminarayan sect), Venkat Krishnan (ICICI-GIVE Foundation) and Vijayalaxmi Das (Friends of Women World Banking).
Bhatt and Iyengar, veterans of Gujarat's social development, knew Clinton was the voice of influence within the AIF, which has, till date, collected more than $5 million for earthquake relief. It was clear the AIF was, through this meeting, looking for NGOs with whom it could have a reliable, resourceful and credible "partnership". For the AIF as an organisation has its limitations. Some of their donors in America could take offence if they support religion- or ideology-based NGOs. Besides, the AIF is not a homogenous organisation. Many of its trustees are either engaged in or head other organisations. Clinton, it is expected, will be the magnet that holds them together.
In the end, he told his select, 200-strong audience. "I have come here to listen. To find out if we can somehow know more about the ways to organise and empower the villages. We should find ways to change their future for better." He added he was looking for a model of development through community-based plans that could be used elsewhere in the world as well. Committing himself to the AIF's aim, he promised to spare time for its activities. And, in saying all that, he set a tall order for both himself and the AIF.
For he has now raised the hopes of both the people of Kutch and the NGOs working for their welfare. He has committed himself to quick action and quicker relief for the tragedy-stricken people of the area. And, in the process, defined his new world role of a social evangelist. His future engagements include a visit to South Africa, where he will work with Nelson Mandela to increase AIDS-awareness, and a trip to Nigeria.
Which makes his commitment here all the more important. His credibility in his role as concerned world citizen will now be decided by the success or failure of the AIF's relief mission in Kutch.
Design: Dominic Xavier
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