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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

UN diary: Filling the void left by the Clintons 

The ending of the Clinton Global Initiative last year has opened space for others to steal the limelight in New York during the UN's most prominent week

Bill Clinton, former US president and founding chairman of the Clinton Global Initiative, poses for a selfie with a guest following his speech at the annual gathering in New York on September, 21, 2016. Bryan R Smith / AFP
Bill Clinton, former US president and founding chairman of the Clinton Global Initiative, poses for a selfie with a guest following his speech at the annual gathering in New York on September, 21, 2016. Bryan R Smith / AFP

The Clinton void is greatly felt in New York City this week. The Bill Clinton void, that is. The elder statesman, who continues to enjoy high popularity ratings in the US and abroad, succeeded in transforming his retirement from US politics into "international do-gooder" role. This was made possible in large part by the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, which for years shadowed the UN General Assembly, but with more celebrity sparkle. Since its launch in 2009, the CGI event has brought together 190 heads of state, 20 Nobel laureates, celebrities such as Barbara Streisand and Donna Karan, along with countless chief executives seeking access to political power and showbusiness popularity.

This time last year, New York was buzzing with expectations that its former senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, would be the next American president. As media reports swirled about foreign donors to the initiative being able to influence the presumptive next American president, the Clintons came to a decision that the 2016 CGI gathering would be the last. The assumption was that they would be back in New York this September as Madame President and Mr First Husband. It was not to be.

In the absence of the Clinton Global Initiative, various organisations and famous figures are seeking to fill that space. The UN Foundation is helping the United Nations reclaim this busy week by launching "Goals Week" to focus all events on the Sustainable Development Goals, the over-arching targets for the 193 members of the UN to strive for. But the UN has to compete with deep pockets and celebrities jockeying for a moment in the limelight.

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In addition to furthering causes – or strategic plans – the hosting of events on the sidelines of General Assembly and having a reason to be in New York during this high-powered week has become a status symbol. Luxurious receptions and parties such as this year’s Forbes Centennial have been added to the mix. The list of parallel events in luxury hotels and community centres is long.

Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, the driving force behind their eponymous charitable foundation, are hosting a gala dinner on Tuesday and a day-long event on Wednesday entitled GoalKeepers. News of former president Barack Obama and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau attending the event made it one of the hottest tickets in town.

On the same day, former mayor of New York and business powerhouse Michael Bloomberg is hosting his Bloomberg Global Business Forum, with the promise of "an unprecedented convening of many of the most significant world leaders and international CEOs ever assembled in a single day". Among the "partners" announced for the event is Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his capacity as chairman of the charitable Misk Foundation, and Jack Ma, executive chairman of the Alibaba Group.

Professor Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum which steals the limelight every January with the Davos meeting, will also leave his mark on the General Assembly week. The WEF is hosting several meetings, including the Sustainable Development Impact Summit that includes sessions such as "Preparing for the Future of Work" and "Accelerating Progress on Urban Development".

There is no lack of celebrities. Matt Damon is in town to support his Water Charity. Angelina Jolie is holding meetings with world leaders on preventing sexual violence in conflicts.

Meanwhile the Social Good Summit is being held under the theme "Future in Focus". Promoting the event with the hashtag #2030Now, its focus is on the year the SDGs are slated to be met.

While some of these events have been held every year, some are new to town. The coming days will show whether the Clinton void can be filled with one main voice, or if the varying powerhouses will carve out their own spaces.