To get an idea of the breadth of ambitions of the 1,300 or so teenagers and 20-somethings gathered for the One Young World summit, listen to one of the questions posed to former President Bill Clinton by a delegate from India:
"Hello, Mr. Clinton. My question is: What are the greatest challenges that the United States and the world sees in the coming decade and what does this country do to battle them?"
"Well, basically, the world faces three great challenges. Maybe 300, but they all fall into three categories," Mr. Clinton said, riling the audience to laughter. His answer -- compacted into about a dozen minutes -- buoyed delegates' hopes that concrete answers exist to the world's most pressing problems, which Mr. Clinton said stem from inequality, instability and the lack of sustainability.
The massive youth summit kicked off Thursday with an uplifting opening ceremony at Heinz Hall that reflected both the group's aspirations and demographics. During the three-hour event, speakers recited a depressing litany of problems facing the globe: poverty, global warming, war, financial crisis. But the underlying message to the young attendees was that they had the power to change things.
"The distance between possible and impossible is getting closer," said Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist whose Grameen Bank defied expectations by providing millions of dollars of small-business loans to impoverished women, giving birth to the concept of microcredit.
Lela Merabishvilli, a 19-year-old student from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, was visibly giddy following the opening ceremonies.
"[The speakers] were very, very inspirational," she said. "We're the ones [responsible] for making the world a better place to live ... so we can't let them down."
The event featured the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra playing a selection of Vivaldi and covering Coldplay, pop singer Joss Stone and speeches from many of the summit's counselors: the irreverent musician and activist Sir Bob Geldof, Mr. Yunus and Mr. Clinton. Following the event, attendees were greeted by a clanging performance of the Robert Morris University marching band, which led them on the rain-dampened streets to outdoor festivities on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
If others provided inspiration, Mr. Clinton, the event's headliner, offered concrete advice. In a format emblematic of the dressed-down style of the summit, he sat on stage with One Young World co-founder David Jones and took questions from pre-selected attendees from every region of the world -- Iraq, Benin, India and the United States.
Reminiscent of his speech at this year's Democratic National Convention, his answers were lengthy and peppered with anecdotes from all over the world -- the healthcare system in Rwanda, the challenges of rural farming in Brazil, the creation of consumer banking in Haiti -- and backed with specific facts and figures. Drawing on his experiences as a statesman as head of the Clinton Global Initiative, he touched on everything from the challenges of democracy in the Middle East to how Third World countries can become independent of foreign aid.
His wonkish answers held the crowd -- which gave Mr. Yunus a louder reception than Ms. Stone -- in rapt attention. In many cases, Mr. Clinton referenced problems and conflicts imminent in the home countries of the delegates. A young man from Iraq asked if the Middle East was ready for the Arab Spring, a question that many of the attendees from Libya, Egypt and Syria likely have asked themselves.
"The accurate answer is yes," he said, "and no. Anytime people can be freer to chart their own course, that's a good thing ... in the whole march of liberty, however, it's an uneven process."
Fresh off a campaign stop in Ohio for President Barack Obama, Mr. Clinton did not shy away from weaving support for the incumbent into his answers, although he never mentioned Mr. Obama's challenger, Gov. Mitt Romney. In his recitation of the United States' own struggle for democracy, he spoke for the fight for gender equality and Mr. Obama's signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
"The other candidate wouldn't even say in a debate the other night whether he would sign the bill," he said.
When asked how Third World countries can become more independent of foreign aid, he held up Rwanda -- a country torn apart by civil war and genocide during his administration -- as an example of how to move toward independence and referenced the Clinton Global Initiative. By taking control of the foreign aid flowing into Rwanda, the country has committed to being free of financial support in the next few decades.
"My goal is always to put myself out of a job," he said, to rousing applause.
As for the three major challenges that he believes the world is facing, he said, "We finally have people in the United States that recognize that the growing inequality in our country is a constraint on our growth, on our access. Every country on the globe has to have a strategy to deal with it."
"We need to figure out a way to turn our best intentions into change," he said.
Mr. Geldof offered a harsher line of advice for the young people in the audience. Waving his hand to the roster of heavy hitters that make up the summit's elder counselors, he said that his generation has "abysmally failed."
"It's too late for everyone behind me," he said, "which means it's your game."
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published October 19, 2012 4:00 AM