There was a heady feeling in the air, like graduation day. On January 31, Hillary Clinton’s second-to-last day in office, some 250 people gathered in the U.S. State Department’s Benjamin Franklin dining room for a reception to thank those who helped the soon-to-depart secretary of State create her Global Partnership Initiative.
Launched in 2009, the initiative aims to strengthen diplomacy and development by working with companies and nonprofits; its two main areas of focus are human rights and clean energy. Explaining her reasons for starting the initiative, Clinton told the crowd that she “wanted to inspire the State Department to collaborate more.”
Years of budget cuts may have slashed U.S. foreign aid, but so far the initiative has drawn $650 million in public and private funds, worked with 1,100 partners and signed 6,500 contracts. Its cornerstone project is clean cookstoves. About half the world’s population relies on toxic stoves or open fires to cook its daily meals, according to research by the State Department and others. The resulting pollution causes an estimated 4 million deaths annually, almost all women and children.
A public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves seeks to develop a thriving market for clean stoves and fuel. To date, it has raised $150 million and is working in 40 countries, including Bangladesh, China and Kenya. Morgan Stanley and accounting firm Deloitte are among the multinationals that have donated money; firms working to turn the project into an investment opportunity include London-based Soprise Impact Fund and Luxembourg’s Bamboo Finance.
“The main topic that we were asked to address has been how companies that produce cookstoves can build better businesses,” says Bamboo senior investment manager Keith Allman. “While we have yet to make a direct investment in a cookstove company, we do consistently maintain contact, as some of these companies may develop for-profit models and grow to a stage that fits our criteria.” If they become scalable investment vehicles, clean cookstoves could provide an opportunity for institutional investors, asserts Soprise president and CEO Peter Jensen.
Although the cookstove program remains a work in progress from an investment point of view, the State Department sees value in the Global Partnership Initiative, which will continue under Clinton’s successor, John Kerry. “This is a new collaborative way to solve huge, complex global problems,” says Kris Balderston, a Washington-based senior partner at communications firm Fleishman-Hillard. Balderston previously served as the initiative’s special representative for global partnerships.