Global Citizen: Global force or global farce?

There is a video in which Hugh Evans speaks about the modus operandi of his philanthropy group Global Citizen, which is hosting a huge charity concert in Johannesburg on December 2.

In it Evans, a Christian philanthropist and fundraiser from Australia living in New York, delineates his organisation’s five key areas of interest: gender equality, education, food security, sanitation and global health.

He states his awareness that, over hundreds of years, “it is the actions of policymakers that have created the world in which we find ourselves”. He even uses the term “systemic change” and is aware that even at the current rate of global philanthropy and government spending pumped into these areas, the planet still has a $200‑billion shortfall needed to achieve zero poverty, with downward trends in spending in these priority areas meaning “less and less children will make it to school every year”.

This shortfall, which Evans believes could be lessened by donations, government lobbying and citizen action, is so dire that he refers to it as a situation of “Band-Aids for bullet wounds”, a seeming recognition of the improbability of ending what he calls “extreme poverty”.

This speech, given in a room full of dress shirt-clad corporate types, is a preamble to how Evans recruited comedian Stephen Colbert to help run a campaign that, in 2015, clogged up conservative Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Twitter feed, forcing her to commit her government to spending $100‑million towards the Global Partnership for Education for the next four years.

The thinking around lobbying Norway, Evans says in the clip, was to encourage a country that was already spending a lot on women’s education to spend even more, thereby encouraging similar action in other countries.

Seemingly, a substantial part of Global Citizen’s and, indeed, Evans’ modus operandi is optimism. The ecstatic feeling of music concerts is harnessed as a mobilisation tool. In South Africa, the concert has been pegged to the centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s birth and will feature artists such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, D’banj, Sho Madjozi, Chris Martin, Pharrell Williams, Wizkid and Tiwa Savage.

The concert’s hosts include Naomi Campbell, Forest Whitaker, Gayle King, Bonang Matheba, Tyler Perry and Sir Bob Geldof. It will also include a keynote address by Oprah Winfrey.

The artists are apparently performing for no fee, with 70% of the tickets being made available for “free”. Thirty percent of the tickets are priced between R1 840 and R4 285.

The methodology of attaining entry into the concert will see fans having to perform acts of charity, service and lobbying (and providing proof of these) to secure a place in a lottery draw for tickets. It has attracted scorn and ridicule from many South Africans. Many view the concert’s lottery system as a form of puppeteering; using fandom to lure people into performing acts of kindness they would otherwise not be interested in. Others have perceived it as a form of data mining.


Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Evans says he believes that if people get into the spirit of altruism — be it to see Beyoncé or otherwise — it eventually becomes habit-forming. Moreover, the masses mobilised through the concert can then act as some kind of megaphone to lobby governments on specific issues, he says.

But people have viewed the piecemeal approach of lobbying governments and corporates in the face of the overarching status quo of rampant capitalism as farcical. It is the equivalent, some argue, of inviting the manufacturers of these problems to absolve their collective conscience by throwing money at it.

South African reaction so far has mostly consisted of outrage and the usual Twitter frothing. Perhaps the frenzy of “spontaneous” acts of kindness is still to come.

In the above-mentioned video of Evans, he appeals to captains of industry, saying that immediate action could breed a more caring corporate culture. By auditing “value chains and operations”, he says, these companies could leverage more of their core business for social change.

Among the partners for the South African version of the concert are mining magnate, soccer team owner and Motsepe Foundation chairperson Patrice Motsepe.

Although it is unclear how much money Motsepe is putting behind the concert, some activists have viewed his participation as questionable, especially when one weighs the expense of bringing Barcelona FC to play Mamelodi Sundowns (costing an estimated R45‑million to R100‑million) against the cost of improving the lot of people in the residential areas surrounding his portfolio of mines.

“Philanthropy must start at home,” says Hassan Lorgat of human rights group and mining watchdog the Benchmarks Foundation.

“How you treat workers and the immediate surrounding areas where your mines are located is important.

“If you look at the Motsepe deals, he was regarded as a BEE [black economic empowerment] success story … He spent a lot of money on this big event [Barcelona vs Sundowns]. These things [the concerts] have a short lifespan. These are feel-good events. It doesn’t take away from how good Beyoncé is as an artist but it is not sustainable and it doesn’t take people out of poverty. In fact, it highlights their poverty because the rhythm of exploitation soon continues.”

Lorgat says none of the messaging “talks about resistance”. He says the festival distracts from making Motsepe accountable for when his companies pollute water. “When communities get sick, they don’t get any redress through the Mining Charter. That is only for organised workers.”

Although the artists are performing for free, the associated costs of festival production routinely run into multiple millions of dollars.

Since starting in 2012, the Global Citizen Festival is now an international event held in a different locale every year.

For Amandla.mobi’s Koketso Moeti, the recent grand prize winner of the Waislitz Global Citizen Award (an amount of $100 000, for which Global Citizen was a conduit), it is important to take a step back and be careful not to be too cynical of philanthropy, as it is something that happens in varying scales.

“Most people misunderstand philanthropy,” she says. “People think about the big guys of this world but people are doing philanthropy all the time. It’s always in action, like driving people to a protest. Some denigrate on account of the few big players. But black tax is philanthropy, meaning black people are the biggest philanthropists in South Africa.”

Although her organisation depends on donor money to survive, Moeti remains picky about where that money comes from.

“Our donations policy, we can argue that it is arbitrary and it is shifting,” she says. “We take money from people, big or small, but we don’t take money from tobacco, alcohol and mining, or people who dictate how that money is used. We take in-kind services, like office space and printing, but if you let the terms of use be dictated, what ends up happening is mission drift, where things you do happen because of what the donors want.”

Just how much of an effect the Global Citizen Festival is likely to have is impossible to tell. Holding politicians to account for their commitments is a long and often rewardless game.

Jess White, a festival organiser operating in Southern Africa, puts in perspective: “If Live Aid in the Eighties and the other, more recent, one had worked, then you wouldn’t need Global Citizen. Beyoncé and Jay-Z don’t need social change for them to live their lives the way they are living them now. This whole thing is driven by an outsider perspective [in relation to South Africa’s needs]. Also, festivals now offset their carbon footprints by buying up rainforests. I haven’t seen the evidence of that from going through their website.”

Andrew Kirk, Global Citizen director of corporate communications said while the festival had not been able to fully offset its footprint due to associated costs, they were currently working with FNB to examine the opportunity to do so in December. In other events, Global Citizen had moved towards zero waste, he said.

The Motsepe Foundation had not responded to a request for comment by the time of going to print.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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