You Can’t Fight Poverty With a Concert

You Can’t Fight Poverty With a Concert

You Can’t Fight Poverty With a Concert

Global Citizen’s celebrity-packed festival aims to mobilize millennials against poverty. That’s pointless if it strips politics from the fight.


The idea of world or global citizenship is an important one. At a time when so many of our most urgent challenges take a global form, it makes sense that the notion of citizenship should expand beyond narrow national interests and that people across the world should experience a sense of responsibility to those outside their local or regional communities. One of the most prominent uses of this idea currently is Global Citizen, an advocacy website and annual music festival. On September 26, Manhattan’s Central Park will be packed with tens of thousands of enthusiastic young people, eager to see artists such as Beyoncé, and just as keen to express solidarity with the world’s poor.

Sadly, the admirable social consciousness Global Citizen taps into looks like it’s going to waste. The campaign offers a hopelessly depoliticized picture of poverty—which is always a political problem above all—and fails to make serious demands of key institutions. From the perspective of the world’s poor, the Global Citizen Festival looks less like a strategic intervention on their behalf and more like a demonstration of young Americans’ support for a doomed agenda for global “development,” one that serves the interests of the rich and powerful first and foremost. As young people concerned about these issues, we urge Global Citizen to do better.

Global Citizen’s campaign is founded on holding governments accountable—through Twitter and e-mail blasts from its members—for fulfilling commitments that they’ve already made, to work towards achieving the UN’s new Global Goals for Sustainable Development. The Global Goals, which will be adopted by UN member nations at the UN Sustainable Development Summit this weekend, are the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were announced in 2000 and expire this year. They represent agreement on principles that are supposed to guide development policy around the world for the next 15 years.

The Global Goals seem ambitious at first. The list of 17 lofty Global Goals (and 169 sub-targets) includes: “end poverty in all its forms everywhere,” “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture,” and “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”—all by the year 2030. According to the festival’s purpose is to serve as “a critical lever for achieving policy and financial commitments that will shape the success of the Global Goals over the next 15 years.”

Ending world poverty in 15 years might sound impossible. That’s because it is—at least without a massive reordering of our world economy, which demands precisely the kind of political discussion Global Citizen avoids. Critics of the Global Goals have called them “a high school wish-list for how to save the world,” “worse than useless,” and a “betrayal of the world’s poorest people.”A study done by economist David Woodward shows that poverty eradication is impossible under our current global economic system. Even under the most ideal conditions, it would take 100 years to bring the world’s poorest above the Global Goals’ poverty line of $1.25/day, and this amount of growth, in a carbon-constrained world, would have devastating environmental consequences.

The key questions are these: How did those in extreme poverty get to be so poor? How were they impoverished, and what is it that continues to impoverish them? A discussion about poverty that avoids these questions is dishonest and unhelpful. It creates a similar paradox to the one Gary Younge has described in liberal discussions of racial inequity. “We have racism,” writes Younge, “but no racists.” What we get from the Global Goals and Global Citizen is a similar idea with regards to poverty—“a consequence that nobody caused, a system that nobody operates creating victims without perpetrators.”

Global Citizen does do important work in raising awareness of poverty and mobilizing an enormous amount of people, but because of its partnerships, sponsors, and associations—the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Citibank, Google, Unilever—and the special interests inherent in those associations, Global Citizen risks providing cover for politicians and companies rather than holding them accountable to young people who care about poverty. We don’t hear Global Citizen advocating for redistribution of wealth and resources. We hear nothing about the urgent changes in tax and trade regulation that developing countries insist are essential to fighting poverty, nor reform of international financial institutions that continue to exploit developing countries.

We see the World Bank’s Jim Yong Kim and the IMF’s Christine Lagarde feted at glamorous Global Citizen events, but we hear nothing about the disastrous policies both institutions have imposed on developing countries, in particular the deeply harmful structural adjustment programs that have sacrificed crucial public institutions to the fetish of the free market.

The World Bank and the IMF are universally despised across the developing world. The great Nigerian musician Fela Kuti dubbed them “International Motherfuckers,” and the moniker has stuck. Last time Lagarde visited Malawi, the world’s poorest country, to promote the IMF’s austerity agenda, ordinary Malawians took to the streets up and down the country to protest her visit, singing that she was unwelcome in Malawi, a famously hospitable country. For those who lived through the devastating assault of structural adjustment on the essential health and education services of the poorest countries, the notion of young Americans and world-famous musicians claiming to make common cause with the poor, while applauding Kim and Lagarde on a Central Park stage, must be astounding.

Simply advocating that rich governments stick to commitments they’ve already made is not good enough. An important, though not very sexy place to begin a more effective campaign would be the issue of taxation and its regulation. In July, the UN held the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to determine how the Global Goals will be paid for. The cost is estimated at between two and three trillion dollars a year for 15 years. Among the topics discussed was demand from the Group of 77 countries that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made up of the world’s richest countries, surrender regulatory powers to a proposed intergovernmental tax body within the UN. Doing so would make certain that developing countries have a say in matters of international taxation and ensure that more money earned in developing countries by multinational corporations stays there. But the United States and the European Union blocked the proposal, insisting that the governance of tax cooperation take place exclusively under the control of the OECD.

According to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, companies like Google—a sponsor of the Global Citizen Festival—“have demonstrated a genius for avoiding taxes that exceeds what they employed in creating innovative products.” While tax evasion like this does not have as big an effect on rich countries, developing countries feel its effects. Not taking power away from the OECD allows for these kinds of injustices to continue unfettered.

Global Citizen also ignores both the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (which could negatively affect economies in developing countries that rely on exports and provoke damaging environmental effects, through factors such as aviation greenhouse gas emissions) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will prevent the industrialization of participating developing countries by “locking [them] into low-end agricultural and extractive industries.” Critics have called the TTIP and the TPP “thinly veiled attempts to carve out China, Brazil, India, and other emerging economies from WTO talks.” Global governance for these types of issues needs to be split equally among the world’s countries, and this should be an issue that “global citizens” are vocal about.

The Global Goals are no cosy consensus. They will be announced at a moment of deep division in international diplomacy, with G77 countries dismayed that the prospect of international tax reform was summarily dismissed by rich countries. When revelers at the Global Citizen Festival gather to celebrate the Global Goals, they will be cheering for a framework for combating poverty that poor countries regard as favoring the interests of the richest nations over the urgent needs of the world’s poorest. So whose side is Global Citizen on?

Google is not the festival’s only sponsor that continues to have negative effects on the lives of those in developing countries. Unilever has been the target of protesting in India—and one global viral video—for its failure to clean up toxic mercury, which has resulted in the deaths of dozens of factory workers and numerous other negative health problems. Additionally, Global Citizen’s online store sells T-shirts commemorating the event made by companies like H&M, which has recently been cited in a report by Human Rights Watch for rights violations in its factories in Cambodia. In order to fund its event, Global Citizen is taking money from—and thereby including in its message—companies whose actions are counterproductive to the goals of Global Citizen, and in doing so, indirectly providing cover for their transgressions.

Advocates of the Global Goals argue that they will pick up from where the success of the MDGs left off. However, there’s little evidence the MDGs have been successful. A study done by UN statistician Howard Friedman—which the UN declined to publish—showed no “trend in statistically significant accelerations in the MDG indicators after 2000.” Clearly, Global Citizen’s energies and resources could be put to much greater use than simply endorsing a wildly expensive action plan that will inevitably fail to meet its goals

A historical framework provides some perspective on how little has changed in the way people talk about “development.” Many consider the origin of this mission to be Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, in which he introduced the Point Four Program (the first US program for international “development”). Truman stated that, “For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of these people [in developing countries].”

While it is troubling to note that this line was included in Truman’s address as “a public-relations gimmick, thrown in by a professional speech-writer,” it is even more striking that this line would persist for over 65 years when it comes to discussions of “development.” Global Citizen’s pledge reads: “I believe that 1 billion people living in extreme poverty is unfair and unjust. For the first time in history, we have the power to end this.” Once again, the phrase acts as a PR gimmick, rallying its prospective members with the ideal that they can be a part of ending extreme poverty, while demonstrating how top-down, depoliticized, technocratic approaches to poverty have endured so long, unchallenged.

Every generation since Truman has failed the world’s poor. We, in 2015, look like we’ll do so again. We urge Global Citizen: Let’s do better.

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