The Great Convener 

The U.S. State Department’s Kris Balderston is forging a new paradigm for public-private partnerships.



By Dirk Olin



The State Department’s Ben Franklin Room was jam-packed on February 17. Its ceremonial flags and brocaded silk drapery provided a staid, solemn backdrop befitting the collection of Queen Anne and Chippendale furnishings that glowed in diffuse chandelier light. All of which made the raucous whooping and hollering completely incongruous. Given the roaring peels of laughter, the proceeding resembled nothing so much as a celebrity roast.


On the dais stood Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, but she was not the one receiving the accolades. Indeed, Clinton was the leader of the homage. With a wry allusion to the charges of carpetbagging that had briefly plagued her 2000 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, she declared that she “really always was a Yankees fan.” She then proceeded to heap encomia on the day’s honoree as only a devout follower of the Bronx Bombers would. She called him “my Mickey Mantle” and also “my Derek Jeter.” But, she added, “he’s the ultimate closer too—maybe Mariano Rivera.” The last comparison, she said, was based on her observation that “he knows how to seal the deal.”


The subject of all this idolatry was Kris Balderston, but he was clearly suited up for the power corridors of the nation’s capital, not the house that Ruth built. Balderston was being sworn in as the department’s special representative for global partnerships, a newly minted position reporting directly to the secretary herself. Not bad for the son of a tavern owner in the tiny upstate New York burgh of Little Falls.


The secretary explained how it was that the two had come to be there that day—how she’d plucked him from a White House staff job in 2000 as she sought to trade the title of First Lady for that of senator, how he’d given her an education in all things north of Manhattan. Clinton was so impressed with Balderston’s subsequent performance in the campaign that she brought him with her to Capitol Hill as her legislative director and, eventually, deputy chief of staff. She recalled how during their first days there, as they waited to escape the rookie legislator’s temporary digs in a basement office, Balderston began “holding court” in the Senate cafeteria. “I heard him called ‘the mayor of upstate,’ ” Clinton said. “He seemed to know everybody.” She then limned sundry projects that he had helped facilitate, the pair of them “traipsing through apple orchards and small family run factories.” There was the so-called Farm to Fork program that matched city-area buyers and distributers with the growers, and there was the initiative to bring eBay into Podunk markets it hadn’t penetrated before. “Kris,” she said, “came up with this idea of the power to convene. There isn’t anyone I can imagine who is as connected.”


“It’s part of being from a small town,” Balderston would later relate. “You get to know everybody, and you expect to know everybody.”


Reinforcing the small town ethos was a contribution from educational culture. Jesuitically trained at Le Moyne College in Syracuse and Georgetown University’s government master’s program, Balderston credits a sensibility nurtured by both institutions. That he found his way into Democratic politics was attributable to the influences of his Irish Catholic clan and the talk at his dad’s tavern in Little Falls.


He began his career at the National Governors’ Association, where he met two future employers: Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, whose state office he ran from 1987 to 1991, and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. (Between those two bosses, he worked for Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.) In the Clinton administration, he served under Labor Secretary Robert Reich before joining the White House staff, where he became deputy secretary to the cabinet. “It was in that position,” he explains, perched in his corner office on the sixth floor of the State Department building in Foggy Bottom, “where I got to see the full array of government power, which has served me in this job, because I can see so many angles and resources everywhere in government that help us from an international perspective to realize our goals.”


Networking, as practiced by some, is little more than self-aggrandizement. But Balderston is leveraging his impish grin and hail-fellow-well-met mien in the service of poverty-stricken women from rural Indian villages and aspiring Muslim students from the ghettos of Karachi. In upstate New York, he’ll tell you, the operative phrase for such liaising is “I’ve got a guy,” as in “I’ve got a guy who can get you cheap snow tires or reasonably priced firewood or a job for your kid.” In Balderston’s current position, his top initiative actually sounds similarly small bore at first: cookstoves. But the seeming inconsequence of those appliances belies their transformational potential.


“We have five big initiatives,” says Balderston. “First is anything the secretary tells us to do, which are one-offs from her travels where she’ll say, ‘Can you connect these people with these people and help solve their problem?’ Those are typically scalable and replicable.”


But of the “official programs,” he says, the one that is “most evolved” is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. “The adminstrator of the Environmental Protection Agency came to us with this problem,” he says. “And it’s a big, big problem. Did you know that two million people, mostly women and children, die each year from the effects of breathing in foul air that’s the result of the indoor air pollution from their cooking? That’s two times more than malaria. It’s more than AIDS. It’s more than tuberculosis. Why? Because they’re cooking on three rocks with a log in a hut. And there are other effects. It causes one-fifth of the black carbon in the world. It creates massive deforestation in lots of countries. It invites violence against women, because they’re out there, unprotected, seeking fuel, mostly wood, and they’re raped and murdered—raped at the rate of one-per-minute in the Congo right now.”


Again, Balderston credits his Jesuitical training with promoting “interdisciplinary approaches” to problems. “People tend to stay in their own groups,” he says, “so this is one of those places where a liberal arts degree actually makes a difference. We brought together the office of global women’s issues and the climate and environmental office and our regional bureaus and the U.N. Foundation. But it was all based on a market-driven approach. It’s a parallel to the Energy Star program for appliances, where people have to meet a standard. We’ve raised $80 million so far, outside of State Department money, with 24 countries to date, half of which have given money. We have working groups in finance, sales, micro-finance, and one to research the standard. In July we held a cookstove event in Chennai in southern India that the secretary led. We’ve brought in Morgan Stanley, Shell Oil, Dow Corning, plus the CII—that’s the Confederation of Indian Industries—and the federation of Chambers of Commerce of India over there. And now we’re talking to China.”


Three other programs are in various states of development.

“Our diaspora project is based on the secretary’s perception of the Irish-American community’s contribution to the Good Friday accords in Ireland. She said, ‘Why not Ghana, why not Nigeria, the Phillipines, Vietnam, Peru?” In May, Balderston’s group organized the first-ever Global Diaspora Forum, with 500 representatives from different countries and groups. “The notion is to form the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance (IDEA) as a platform to help people organize, and it’s helpful with our understanding of what’s happening on the ground and our ability to message, too. It’s important to realize that there are $50 billion in remittances recorded from this country to overseas—which is twice our foreign aid budget, and it’s probably four times that if you could measure the unrecorded remittances. Our addition is to communitize this, to create water or education or training or health programs that are long-term projects, not just done one family at a time.”


Of particular currency is the program’s initiative in Muslim countries. “Our Partners for a New Beginning was an outgrowth of President Obama’s Cairo speech. You know, we used to say ‘before Cairo,’ and we meant his speech, but now the Arab Spring has given it a whole new relevance. It’s headed up by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with the other key partners being Muhtar Kent, the CEO from Coca Cola, and Walter Isaacson, who heads up the Aspen Institute. Once again, it’s a combination of companies and universities and other institutions, in this case to create exchange programs, starting with the five predominantly Muslim countries of Pakistan, Indnonesia, Egypt, West Bank/Gaza, and Turkey—and now including emerging North African countries.”


Just getting underway is the program’s final official initiative, Investing With Impact. It’s an effort that will soon spawn its own conference, as Balderston once again exerts “the power to convene.” Interestingly, that is a notion that he credits repeatedly to the secretary—whereas her speech at his swearing-in clearly gave him the nod for its development. It is, arguably the principle underlying any successful public-private partnership: that serious progress is frequently possible, if you’re willing to let someone else take the credit.