Global Citizen Festival: a mash-up of music fans, bands and prime ministers

BEFORE digital connectivity, non-profit organisations benefited from concerts that solicited donations and touted their causes. The 1971 Concert for Bangladesh raised money for UNICEF; 1985’s Live Aid sent famine relief to Ethiopia, and since 2004, the Black Ball has collected millions to fight AIDS. Now the charity concert model is changing. Millennials prefer festivals to black-tie affairs, and use social media to advocate instead of swiping a credit card.

One example of this new method of advocacy is the Global Citizen Festival, a concert held in New York City each September to promote awareness of extreme poverty. The festival’s model is a digital facelift of the 1980s movement-building efforts of Amnesty International and an indirect descendant of Bono’s ONE campaign, which pioneered online advocacy for the development sector in 2004. Each year, the Global Citizen Festival distributes 60,000 tickets; fans can earn entrance by completing online “actions” such as signing a petition or tweeting at world leaders about vaccines, access to education and clean water. The internet chatter is intended to force politicians to make commitments to fight poverty in Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America. Is it effective?

“I got a bit irritated, but it was fun,” Erna Solberg, Norway’s prime minister, says. Speaking exclusively to The Economist, she recalls the Twitter storm she endured last summer after Stephen Colbert, an American television personality, posted a video asking fans to contact her about international girls’ education initiatives. Ms Solberg later agreed to speak at the 2015 Festival and announced a $6m increase in her country’s commitment to water and sanitation efforts that help to keep girls in school. After receiving a personal letter from Chris Martin (Coldplay’s frontman), Stefan Löfven, the Swedish prime minister, appeared onstage in 2015 and committed to improving sanitation for 60m people. World leaders speaking at pop concerts may be interpreted as publicity stunts, but Ms Solberg feels the spotlight provides an opportunity to rally and unify countries behind the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which have been challenged by economic crises and sharp political polarity worldwide.

The festival can be beneficial only if funding promised by the countries reaches its destinations, says Jodi Allison of MAP International, a relief organisation that distributes medical supplies to dozens of countries and is not affiliated with Global Citizen. She thinks fundraising for non-governmental partners on the ground should be a priority within Global Citizen’s commitment scheme. “It’s a great concert model because it allows people to advocate on behalf of organisations in a way that is specific to the issues they’re interested in,” she says. “But, realistically, non-profits must also bring in individual donations to fund our work.”

Hugh Evans, 33, co-founded the festival in 2012 and has since replicated the model in Washington, DC, Munich, Montreal and Mumbai. Mr Evans says ending global poverty requires thinking beyond the cost of a concert ticket or the donations of billionaires. “When political pundits say extreme poverty is a $260 billion-a-year challenge, and the current state of global philanthropy is only $60 billion, you’ve got a $200 billion-a-year gap,” he says. “The only way that gap is going to be filled is by public investment.”

Corporate partners such as LiveNation, Johnson & Johnson and Caterpillar finance Global Citizen’s events, which are among the largest concerts in the world. But aside from hosting Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Sting and others, is it wise for a young team of advocates, concert organisers and rock stars—who are not diplomatic experts—to meet with heads of state and broker deals? Chris Williams, who runs the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council in Geneva and is a partner of the festival, believes it is. He argues that Global Citizen’s methods are a product of millennial fearlessness: “millennials don’t care if they embarrass themselves or make a mistake; they believe policymakers have a responsibility to use resources for social good.”

The festival’s popularity highlights that participation in the “social good” movement is attractive to millennials. Talia Stone, a 20 year-old advocate, notes that seeing Usher perform with The Roots was the main appeal of the Global Citizen event in Montreal on September 17th. “But seeing my prime minister Justin Trudeau supporting the effort meant more to me than the musicians who performed,” she says. 

In New York’s Central Park on September 24, the fifth instalment of the Global Citizen Festival offered the enthusiastic and socially-invested crowd a taste of musical urgency. Rapper Kendrick Lamar alluded to America’s racial strife in tough songs about blunts and bullets. An impassioned piano duet of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”—performed by Mr Martin and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam—infused the event with a spirit of peaceful protest, reminiscent of the 1960s. After speeches by celebrities, commitments made by the leaders of Luxembourg and Malta, plus five hours of music, it was clear to the audience that extreme poverty and injustice are no longer considered problems half the world away. They are everywhere, and sometimes their solutions can begin with the phones in our palms.


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