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Episode 038: The Borgen Project’s Fight Against Extreme Poverty with Clint Borgen

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Clint Borgen is the Founder and President of The Borgen Project, an organization working to bring U.S. political attention to global poverty. Borgen works with Congressional leaders to build support for legislation that improves conditions for people in developing nations. He is widely regarded as one of the leading poverty-reduction campaigners in the United States.

In this episode, Clint talks about The Borgen Project’s mission to fight extreme poverty. The Borgen Project believes that leaders of the most powerful nation on earth should be doing more to address global poverty. 

Highlights:

  • Clint’s personal journey to becoming the Founder of The Borgen Project
  • How The Borgen Project engages political leaders in the United States to address poverty around the world
  • Past policy wins and ongoing campaigns (like the Girls Lead Act, a bill that empowers women in developing nations to participate in democratic processes)
  • Why it’s important for U.S. policy to prioritize global humanitarian issues
  • Why empowering women and girls is key to reducing overall poverty in developing countries
  • What you can do to participate in the political process and advocate for issues you care about 

Connect:

Website: www.borgenproject.org

Twitter: @borgenproject | @clintborgen

Facebook: www.facebook.com/borgenproject

Bio:

Clint Borgen is the Founder and President of The Borgen Project, an organization working to bring U.S. political attention to global poverty. Borgen works with Congressional leaders to build support for legislation that improves conditions for people in developing nations. He is widely regarded as one of the leading poverty-reduction campaigners in the United States.

Background: In 1999, while working as a young volunteer in refugee camps during the Kosovo War and genocide, Clint Borgen recognized the need for an organization that could bring U.S. political attention to issues of severe poverty.

In 2003, after graduating from Washington State University and interning at the United Nations, Borgen began developing his project. In need of startup funding, Borgen took a job living on a fishing vessel docked in Dutch Harbor, Alaska (the same location as The Deadliest Catch). From humble beginnings in one of Earth’s most remote locations, The Borgen Project was born.

Now headquartered in Tacoma, Washington, The Borgen Project has become an influential campaign aimed at reducing global poverty through public mobilization and political advocacy, and serves as a testament that one man and a laptop can change the world.

Transcript:

Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.

Jessica Williams 0:33
Today’s episode is with Clint Borgen. Clint is the Founder and President of the Borgen Project, an organization working to bring U.S. political attention to global poverty. Borgen works with congressional leaders to build support for legislation that improves conditions for people in developing nations. He is widely regarded as one of the leading poverty reduction campaigners in the United States. In this episode, Clint talks about the Borgen Project’s mission to fight extreme poverty. Now let’s go on to the show. Clint, welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast. How are you today?

Clint Borgen 1:11
I’m great. Yeah, I appreciate you having me.

Jessica Williams 1:13
Absolutely. Well, I’m so familiar with the Borgen project, you know, so I’m really excited to have this conversation. But let’s start out for those who aren’t familiar with your work. Can you tell us more about the Borgen Project? What it is, what it does, and how it works?

Clint Borgen 1:28
Yeah, you can kind of think of the Borgen Project as lobbyists for the world’s poor. So we’re really advocating for people who are living in extreme poverty. And we’re advocating at the congressional level with members of Congress and basically trying to get U.S. foreign policy to do more to improve living conditions for people that Congress might not otherwise be inclined to do. So that’s kind of our role in the world – basically just creating, mobilizing the public and creating political pressure on our leaders to have policies more focused on improving living conditions for people.

Jessica Williams 1:58
Yeah, that makes sense. So can you give me an example of like a particular political agenda that you’ve been working on, and kind of how you’ve been putting that pressure on congressional leaders?

Clint Borgen 2:09
Sure. So like, right now we’re working on a bill called the Girls Lead Act. And that’s legislation that’s basically looking at how to get women in developing countries more involved in participating in democracy, essentially. Basically, rising in positions of power in some of these countries, more or less is kind of the broad scope. To do that, we have a network of volunteers in all 50 states. And they’re both reaching out directly to congressional offices through email, and then also mobilizing other people to do it as well. They’re also doing grassroots lobbying meetings in those states, meeting with the members of Congress that represent them. And the organization at the same time is doing senior leadership meetings with staff and leaders in Congress about that bill and trying to build co-sponsors and get that bill through Congress. So that’s kind of the short version.

Clint Borgen 2:56
One thing I’ll point out too, is, when I first started organization, I was super skeptical that emailing Congress and reaching out to members of Congress made any difference at all. And we’ve really found it has a huge impact on getting leaders to support bills. We have a couple members of Congress who serve on a board of directors. And one in particular always talks about: if his office receives five calls in the morning on any given bill, his staff has notified him by the afternoon about that bill. And all these offices also have tally systems that keep tally of which issues people are contacting them about and send that report to the leader. They get a pretty concise breakdown. So my words of wisdom to all who listen, if there’s anything you care about, definitely find groups that are advocating for it and try to identify legislation they’re working on and fill out those those generic boring form emails to Congress, because they really do make a difference.

Jessica Williams 3:45
Well, that’s good to hear. Because yeah, I often wonder, how does that work? Does it make any difference?

Clint Borgen 3:52
Surprisingly, it does. I was definitely a big skeptic at first. But yeah, we’ve seen amazing results with just a handful of people reaching out to any given leader on a bill.

Jessica Williams 4:00
Oh, that’s cool. Can you give me an example of some of the results that you’ve seen?

Clint Borgen 4:04
Yes, like the Water For The World rollback was a bill we’ve worked on. And that one had pretty good grassroots mobilization around and it passed. Now it’s helping millions of people get access to clean, safe drinking water. But you know, just broadly speaking, I’ve been in meetings with congressional staffers, and they’re like, Oh, we hear a bunch of board and project supporters in our district. And we have data, right, so we can go on our site and look at how many people from any given state, how many emails each leader from any given state received from board and project supporters and their district. So I can pull it, we can pull up a senator and see that this year, 30 people called them in support of a bill. And it’s always interesting to me… sometimes, some leaders feel like they’re hearing a lot from our supporters. It might actually be like 20 people that actually call them all year long, staff that emailed them all year long about that bill. So it’s odd. But it really has a big impact. Some hot item issues like immigration or things that are making big news at the time, those get a lot of calls and emails. But most other issues or bills, they just don’t hear from a lot from people on. So they are more receptive to try to support those doing what they can.

Jessica Williams 5:10
Absolutely. So I’m going to play like the devil’s advocate here for people who are maybe more inclined to say, hey, the U.S. should be focused on U.S. issues and not so concerned about the rest of the world. Why is it important for our Congress or Senate, our White House to pay attention to international issues of poverty, violence and all the humanitarian crises that are going on? Why is this important?

Clint Borgen 5:37
So there’s there’s a very direct tie between what’s going on in the rest of the world and how that impacts job growth in the economy and United States. There’s also really strong indicators on how it impacts national security as well. Starting with the economic side, you can look at all the top trading partners the United States currently has – all but Canada at one time were born recipients of US foreign assistance. So these are countries like the EU, South Korea, Japan…countries that at one time were receiving foreign assistance from the United States, but have since graduated off assistance. And some our top trading partners, the aid we provided those countries at the time, on an annual basis, we export far more to those countries than we ever gave an aid. So it was investments that we made in those countries. And now we’re seeing huge economic return on those investments.

Clint Borgen 6:24
But big thing is not even those countries. I mean, the buzzword you hear a lot is “emerging markets.” These are places where poverty rates are dropping. It’s creating a rising number of people who can actually afford to buy products coming out of the United States. And it’s everything from, you know, you look at most apples. Based in Washington state, most of our apples are now being exported to Mexico – a market that hardly existed at all for Washington apple growers, you know, 20 years ago. But now it’s the top recipient of apples, are going to Mexico. You look at even like giant products, another big come down here is Boeing and they make commercial aircrafts. your giant 737s, over 50% of their commercial airplanes are going to developing countries. And some of these countries that are not what you’d necessarily think. And actually, their largest commercial contract with an airline, it wasn’t the U.S. or Europe. It was an airline out of Indonesia, you know, historically, when the poorest countries on Earth, but as poverty rates have been dropping in that region, boom, behold, there’s a rising number of people who can afford to fly and are buying airplane tickets. And to meet that growing demand the airline out there, Lion Airlines has been buying up 737s off the factory through the United States. So really, you can kind of look at almost industry, any industry and agriculture product, and kind of go down a list and look at where it’s being exported to. And more often than not, it’s a country that’s seen a pretty sizable drop in poverty and a growing number of consumers in those regions. So that’s the big one on the economy side. You actually have like, the Chamber of Commerce has sent letters to Congress calling for strong funding for the National Affairs Budget and business leaders kind of increasingly talking about this.

Clint Borgen 7:58
The other one is national security. So you look at the national security strategies of both the Bush administration, the Obama ministration. And they’ll talk about development as a cornerstone of national security, and that they talk about the three legged stool of defense, diplomacy and development. So what they really found – and this has been a big lesson since 911, in particular – is where people have no hope and opportunity, that creates conditions of instability, and places where drug cartels can more easily operate and terrorist groups can more easily operate. It’s kind of what we’ve been learning, relearning over and over again, throughout history, unfortunately. But you know, when people have no hope and opportunity, that’s not good. That’s where the bad guys can operate freely and creates long national security issues for us. And so it’s very much in our interest, both national security-wise, economics-wise.

Clint Borgen 8:41
If you are someone who doesn’t believe in immigration…there’s also pretty huge ties to that. I personally am a big fan of immigration. But for those who are against it, there’s also a pretty huge correlation between the reasons people are coming here as often they’re fleeing, as we’re seeing right now in Northern Triangle countries. They’re fleeing unstable, or chaotic or dangerous places and coming to our country, as well. So you can kind of nail down, you know, the talk about poverty is a root issue. But you look at some of the issues that seem to get attention here, that we care about here, and there’s a strong correlation between what’s going on overseas as well.

Jessica Williams 8:42
Mhmm. Very interesting. So I’m curious, what are some of the poorest countries in the world that you’re really focused on improving conditions for?

Clint Borgen 9:25
Yeah, so we’re operating at the political policy level. So what we’re doing is, it’s trying to get better funding and efficiency for the USAID, the U.S. governmen’s aid agency. So a lot of those decisions are made at that level at USAID. But that said, a lot of the bills we’re targeting and working on primarily look at the Horn of Africa, some of those regions. But other times we’ll be…there’s a Northern Triangle bill we worked on recently. And so some will be region specific, but more often than not, it’s targeting countries in Sub Saharan Africa.

Jessica Williams 9:56
Yeah, that makes sense. So how did you get into this work? I mean, I think your background is – I only have a little bit of information, but it appears to be very interesting. So I’m curious about this.

Clint Borgen 10:08
Yeah, I just growing up always kinda had an interest in this stuff, for whatever reason. And it really just, I give credit to those commercials you see on TV asking you to donate to starving children overseas because it I was just blown away. That stuff I remember, even when I was like a first grader, just being blown away that that stuff was going on. Very different from the world I grew up in. So in college, I went and volunteered over in Kosovo, when the war and ethnic cleansing was was going on over there, and worked in refugee camps. And I was just absolutely amazed how little it takes to improve conditions for people on the ground. You know, the basic human needs: food, water, shelter, are pretty easy to deliver for individuals in those emergency situations. But then I was also really bothered that US wasn’t doing more. So I grew up, you know, with a patriotic upbringing and had a strong sense of: the U.S. is out saving the world and lots of great things. And we definitely as a country do a lot of amazing stuff. But there’s a big disconnect between what I thought was being done and was actually being done.

Clint Borgen 11:09
And that’s something I’ve seen not just in [inaudible] and in other hotspots around the world, is there’s a lot of countries working on these issues and coming together to try write some these wrongs. And I think the U.S. has a unique ability to do more and have a bigger impact with our role in the world. So that was kind of my moment of Zen, of like, okay, we need to find a way to get U.S. leaders doing more, and get public engagement around these issues more. So shortly after college, I started wanting to start working on this, the idea for the organization and just graduate college student loans to pay off. And this was like right after 9/11, like December after 9/11. So the job market didn’t look too great either. So I was like, Well, I’m just gonna go forward to start this organization and ended up taking a job on a fishing boat up in Alaska. So not really what I planned on doing with my college career, right out the gate. But kind of, basically what they do, they’d hired someone to live on the boat in the offseason. And so for a year and a half, I’d go up for three months stints and work on the boat. And basically, I had like all day to just do nothing but work on the Borgen Project because the crew was gone. They just needed someone to be the security guard basically, and kind of live on the boat and make sure that didn’t sink or nothing went bad. And this is up in the Aleutian Islands. For those that watch the TV show The Deadliest Catch, it’s all it’s that same area. And all those guys I’d seen on the dock before – this is like right before the show started though, back in the day. So kind of interesting.

Clint Borgen 12:29
So yeah, that was early days as an organization, just me for about a year and a half. And I was just sitting at my computer in the galley of the boat. And it was, you know, basically like living in a bomb shelter, because I was kind of slightly at sea level or just below sea level. So there’s no windows in the area I was living and working out of. But it’s really kind of perfect conditions for a startup, because I just had all day and night. And then, of course, Alaska is extremely dark in the winter as well. So to kind of focus on it and figure out what the heck I was doing, because I really had no background on policy, reall. No knowledge of a lot of stuff, to be honest, in everything from web development, to learning the policy ropes and doing the formation of the organization. So it all kind of started up there, and then eventually I moved back to Seattle to continue to work on it. For the first 10 years, though, I was pretty close to running the organization full time, but always had to have jobs. And I ran it unpaid for the first 10 years, always had jobs outside the organization for the first 10 years. So most of that time was like, I’d spend all day in the Borgen Project in the office. And then in the early afternoon, I’d run over and work – typically I was working nights at restaurants or hotels, doing room service. So that was kind of my existence for several years. And the organization kind of kept growing, our political influence was getting stronger and all as well. But fundraising was definitely something I personally struggled with. I was raised not to talk about money or ask for money. So it was of my early things to overcome as a person to build the organization. But yeah, so that was kind of its existence. And then we just kind of kept growing and expanding. And now we’re, like I said, we’ve got volunteers in 50 states and several different countries and good team of staff helping me and kind of making things work. So it’s kind of expanded quite a bit.

Jessica Williams 14:10
That’s amazing. And you know, in 2023, it looks like you’ll be going on 10 years. So that’s cool.

Clint Borgen 14:17
Yeah, like we’re actually coming up on our 17th year now.

Jessica Williams 14:21
Oh, wow. Yeah, my math’s off. That’s awesome. So since Days for Girls focuses on empowering women, can you talk about why empowering women is part of the comprehensive plan to reducing poverty and developing countries?

Clint Borgen 14:46
Yeah, I mean, you look at most power reduction strategies, a lot of it targets ways to improve conditions for women. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. But one of the big ones is there’s a lot more likelihood that women will be able to help the children and have them play a role in looking our for the kids. And not not to bash my fellow men out there. But in terms of where most responsibility lies and where the resources get best utilized, it’s really kind of helping women. And then a big part of that: you look at the stats too, on girls, the longer they stay in school, there’s far less likelihood of being forced into the child marriage or having babies early. And so it just kind of go down the list. But there’s any number of reasons why you’d want to be doing more to address women’s empowerment, but I think those are some of the ones that come to mind off off the bat.

Jessica Williams 15:35
Yeah, I remember when I first learned, like, oh, one of the keys to ending cycles of violence and poverty and reducing crime and empowering nations and even climate change is empowering women. That’s so cool.

Clint Borgen 15:53
Yeah, there’s a lot of connections between those issues as well. So yeah, it’s very interesting.

Jessica Williams 16:01
It’s almost…the whole idea that equality, like, lifts all boats and really improves society as a whole. I really believe in that. So I think it’s a good example of that, for sure. So I am curious about if people want to get involved, they want to support the Borgen Project, and they want to act, what are some of the things that they can do to participate and support your initiatives?

Clint Borgen 16:28
Yeah, so we have volunteer roles that can be done remotely across the country and overseas as well. And so a lot of those involve advocacy, going out and meeting directly with congressional offices. There’s other roles in writing as well, we have an online magazine. So there’s definitely volunteer opportunities that I would definitely encourage people to get involved with.

Jessica Williams 16:52
I’m specifically curious about the ways…because I feel like a lot of people, they sit back and they go, What can I do really? Like, really? Are you sure Clint, if I call my congressman, they’re actually going to care, that’s actually going to make a difference?So what are some other things they can do, besides just write a letter and call their congressmen, to make a difference on the issues that they care about?

Clint Borgen 17:14
Yeah, I mean, not to keep harping on that. But I will say, you know, I was that person where I was like, so skeptica. But it really does, they do keep track of every single – tally every single column and stuff. So that one is, if you want a quick 30 second way to help, that’s always a good one. One thing we tell people is to just put your leader phone numbers in your cell phone, you can look their numbers up either on our website or online. And if you’d like, bored sitting in traffic, you could just call to support, or like, encourage support for their [inaudible] budget. And the person answering the phone will write that down and go from there. So that one’s a good one thing. Another thing is just information, like basically awareness stuff. Everyone’s got social media accounts. So if you want, sharing articles that kind of help engage people in the topics, and things you find is always good as well. But yeah, those those are probably the ones that stand out the most to me, you know, obviously donating stuff like that can help as well. But it’s some of the simpler stuff is surprisingly effective.

Jessica Williams 18:19
Yeah. So how do people find out what, like legislation their congressional leaders are currently working on, is that public information on their websites?

Clint Borgen 18:28
Yeah, and if you’re looking for stuff specific to – so a lot of times it will be on their website. But if you’re looking for stuff specific to poverty, if you go to the borgenproject.org, there’s a link to a legislation page that kind of lists all the current bills we’re focused on, related to global poverty. And from there, you can get more details. Like you can click and see who’s co-sponsored it, not co-sponsored it, and you can email your leaders directly through that way as well.

Jessica Williams 18:53
Awesome, fantastic. And, Clint, are you just gonna keep doing what you’re doing at the Borgen Project? Or do you have any upcoming projects or new things that you’re focused on?

Clint Borgen 19:05
You know, one thing right now is with COVID, we really have a lot concerns there, as everyone in the world does. There’s been a huge amount of progress and poverty rates dropping globally in the last 20 years, but COVID is definitely going to push that number back up a little bit. And, you know, we have one staff member who’s based in South Africa, and she’s like, not going to get the vaccine for at least another two years, probably. So I thin here in the U.S., it’s sort of starting to wrap up, but you know, it’s an issue that’s still ravaging developing countries. And so we’re kind of focused on right now on trying to get the U.S. sharing our vaccine more overseas and putting pressure on us leaders to do more around the do that as well. And I should say there’s also strategic reasons for doing this. Both China and Russia were providing vaccines to other countries very early on in this, in the Covid pandemic. And they weren’t necessarily doing that out of the goodness of the hearts. A lot of that is very strategic and wanting to gain influence in some of those countries as well.

Jessica Williams 20:06
Right. And also, you know, protect their own right?

Clint Borgen 20:10
Exactly.

Jessica Williams 20:10
Yeah, very interesting. A lot of the reports coming out about COVID are just devastating to a lot of the progress that we’ve made over the last decades in terms of fighting poverty.

Clint Borgen 20:22
It really is, and I feel like we have no idea the real numbers in so many countries too. Because, you know, a lot of these countries, they just don’t have the testing to even be testing. So they’re not like, getting an accurate read on how many people are getting it and die. So yeah, I think when the dust settles, we’re probably gonna be quite shocked at what all has occurred.

Jessica Williams 20:42
Mhmm. Absolutely. Well, I’m glad you’re focused on that. And I think the work that you’re doing is pretty amazing. I’m so glad that you got to have this conversation. If people want to connect with you personally, and the Borgen Project. How do they do that?

Clint Borgen 20:55
Yeah, just borgenproject.org is where you can find out all information, whether you want to get involved or volunteer or whatever. So that’s probably the best route. And then on Twitter, also just @borgenproject and @clintborgen.

Jessica Williams 21:14
Awesome. We’ll put that link in the show notes. So everybody’s got it. And Clint, thanks so much for your time.

Clint Borgen 21:19
Appreciate it, have a good rest of your day.

Jessica Williams 21:23
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.

 

 

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams is Chief Development & Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. She is also the host of The Days for Girls Podcast. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in Communications and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from The University of Oregon. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business Nonprofit MBA program.