Whatever Works

Jimmy Wales, Tawakkol Karman, Paul Farmer Offer Solutions at CGI Summit

From Jimmy Wales to Paul Farmer, innovators at the Clinton Global Initiative proffer solutions that range from wireless to elbow grease, reports Allison Yarrow.

09.24.12 11:13 PM ET

The intersection of post-dictatorship emerging democracies, global health policy, and information highway Wikipedia informed the Champions of Action panel moderated by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright on the second day of the eighth annual Clinton Global Initiative summit.

Representing the technological frontier that has enabled unprecedented change throughout the Middle East was Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who Albright introduced as the mind behind what “many of today’s college students consider to be the only form of information they’ll ever need.”

Wales praised the site’s community of “old-fashioned” users who demand and uphold the site’s rigorous sourcing and fact-checking standards, no small feat for the world’s definitive encyclopedia. Wikipedia’s mammoth size and unwieldy nature—user-generated content from nearly 500 million users each month—can create a feedback loop.

"We would follow what The New York Times said, but probably The New York Times looked it up in Wikipedia, so it’s circular,” Wales said. Karman said more and more people now want to know what is going on in the world—as many did during the Arab Spring—and rather than buying a book or visiting the library, they can click and read mere paragraphs and be informed.

“I used to work for Encyclopedia Britannica and that book has gone out of style,” Albright quipped.

Wales said the press misses the point when it focuses only on Facebook or Twitter as harbingers of revolution, and that less visible online coordination preempts and is the engine of successful campaigns. Nations under oppressive regimes can now not only learn how others countries have unchained themselves, but they can access ready blueprints for writing working constitutions and furnishing new people-centric governments, which is very exciting, according to Wales.

This is the fundamental work Yemen is doing now following the ousting of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this year. Yemeni Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman addressed that country’s difficult transition with bold optimism and a nod toward technologies that enabled the country’s organizing and ultimate power restructuring. Because of this, she said, Yemen’s path to a stable future is clear.

"As we succeeded in stepping down a dictator, we will succeed in building our country. We finished our first goal of a peaceful revolution. Now we are removing corruption from institutions,” said Karman, 32, the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Karman launched her efforts in 2005 and runs Women Journalists Without Chains, which trains women to wield new media as a potent weapon against human-rights violations.

Using online resources to construct a functioning democracy from the ground up differs from repairing a community after devastation. Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer spoke about his rebuilding work in Haiti, and dispelled the myth that the country is “resistant to change.” Farmer reminded attendees that the country’s roots in social unrest are real, from its founding after a slave revolt, to the U.S.’s own occupation of the country in the early 30s. Albright said perhaps the most pressing obstruction to Haiti’s infrastructure development is confusion over land rights and titles, but Farmer was optimistic, citing examples of building projects completed, like a new modern health center.

"We’re going to have to stick with it for some decades,” he said of financial and human commitment to the country’s rejuvenation. At the start of the meeting day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opined that the State Department and Obama administration’s job in aiding low- to middle-income countries is to eventually “put itself out of business,” meaning partnering in such a way as to leave the country self-sustaining. Such relationships are not without partnerships with the private sector, she said—in other words, a business plan.

Wikipedia may be the sixth most visited site on the Internet with 2.7 billion page views each month (this, according to Wikipedia) but many forget that what Albright called the “ultimate research tool” is a nonprofit largely funded by small donors. Wales said his company could use a business plan.

"We don’t anticipate a lot of competition, because frankly it’s very bad business,” said Wales.