Big guns join in Powell's clean-up

President Bill Clinton, three former US presidents, their wives, and numerous American celebrities rolled up their sleeves yesterday morning and armed themselves with brooms and mops to lead 5,000 young volunteers in a glitzy clean-up of a rundown area of Philadelphia. The mass scrubbing effort in the city's litter- and graffiti-strewn Germantown district was the high-profile opening event in a three-day national convention on volunteering, grandly styled "Presidents for America's future".

The driving force behind the "summit", which brings together more than 30 state governors, 60 city mayors, about 300 business leaders and representatives of hundreds of volunteer agencies, is the retired Gulf War general, Colin Powell. The general's possible entry into US politics is still the subject of much speculation despite his decision not to run for office last year.

Mr Powell was at pains to deny any political motive to his involvement. "I'm very happy in private life," he told NBC television, "I am not in political life." However, he declined to dismiss categorically the idea that he would never stand for the presidency, and clearly relished being a black American role model.

While Mr Powell may be one of the least controversial figures in public life and the central aim of the summit - to provide through voluntary effort adult mentors, safe places, satisfactory health care and education for children in deprived areas - reflects a characteristically American emphasis on the values of private initiative and community involvement, the project has not lacked for critics. The most direct have asked how the momentum to improve inner city areas can possibly be sustained after the razzmatazz of the weekend is over.

Other criticisms are more telling. Certain politicians, on the political right and left, argue that much of the work that the volunteers are being recruited to do - teaching reading, counselling young people in difficulty - ought properly to be paid for by the state. "Teaching our children to read," said a leading Republican yesterday, "is the job of the education system." To this is added the difficulty of recruiting the right volunteers - or even any volunteers at all - to work in areas that are often dangerous for outsiders.

The cost of the campaign is also at issue. Designed to improve the living conditions of 2 million out of the 15 million children thought to live in poverty in the US, the programme has been conservatively costed at $15bn (pounds 9bn), to be paid by the state. Employers are being urged to release volunteers on full pay - a plan that is meeting resistance.

And despite its determinedly apolitical character, with a former Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and Republicans Gerald Ford and George Bush, agreeing to take part, the summit has brought party political accusations. Mr Clinton, say some opponents, is using the summit to try to increase funding for his first-term initiative on volunteering, the Americorps. This pays $5,000 towards college fees to young people who spend a year doing community service.