Eradicating poverty is not a naïve pipe dream

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I have always admired and enjoyed reading Kwanele Sosibo’s views on South African music, arts and culture. So I was surprised to read his recent Mail & Guardian article with misinformed assertions about the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100, questioning both the efficacy of the Global Citizen movement as well as its fundamental goal: a world without extreme poverty by 2030.

Sosibo dismisses the eradication of extreme poverty as an improbable, even laughable goal for the hopelessly naïve. At the same time however Sosibo offers zero objective analysis of advocacy as a catalyst for poverty alleviation focused public policy; nor does he offer an alternative theory-of-change worthy of consideration. As a black man in modern South Africa it made me question why we have to belittle ideas that we cannot identify with or understand.

To be clear, ending extreme poverty by 2030 is not a farcical or fantastical aim. Nor was it dreamt up overnight by any single NGO or movement. Rather, it is enshrined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 17-point plan that aims to end extreme poverty, mitigate climate change, and reduce inequality. It is by no means perfect, but the alternative of doing nothing is not a solution.

In 2015 all 193 UN member nations, including South Africa and all of the BRICS nations, adopted the SDGs. As then South African Ambassador to the UN, Jeremiah Kingsley Mamabolo speaking on behalf of the whole G77 said, “We have undertaken a large amount of work [to reach this point]… In the words of the late Nelson Mandela,…’it is always impossible until it is done.’”

READ MORE: Global Citizen: Global force or global farce?

To be sure, achieving the SDGs and ending extreme poverty will require a degree of political ambition and commitment far beyond what the world has seen in recent years. Within South Africa alone, the number of people living in poverty has remained the same or even increased in recent years, with at least a quarter of the population still living in extreme poverty — under R45 per day. It is in part due to the scale of this challenge that a movement like Global Citizen exists in the first place: concerned citizens will need to hold their governments accountable and make sure they follow through on their commitments. This is why we have put the SDGs, and not business-as-usual band-aid charity, at the core of this year’s Festival, which honours the legacy of my grandfather.

In the last twenty years alone, the number of people living in extreme poverty was cut in half, falling by 137 000 every day for the last 25 years, according to the economist Max Roser. This is not just about rising incomes. We’ve also seen significant progress in reduced child and maternal mortality rates.

And yet, most people have no idea about the progress that has been made. A recently published 26-country survey (which includes South Africa) conducted by Glocalities over January-February 2018 highlights that 84% of the global population believe that extreme poverty has either increased or stayed the same. Similarly, only 10% of respondents say they have a fair to good knowledge of the SDGs. The minority of people who are aware of the fact that extreme poverty has decreased (16% worldwide) have a far more positive outlook on the future of the world and are more likely to take action, volunteer and make a difference.

That is why Global Citizen has taken a “pop and policy” approach – working with some of the best artists in the world, including Tiwa Savage, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, D’banj, Sho Madjozi, Chris Martin, Pharrell Williams, Wizkid and Femi Kuti — who have the power to reach and engage millions of fans and activists, and who can call on world leaders to make serious commitments towards ending extreme poverty. Global Citizen focuses on engaging people to take actions that, as Sosibo himself notes, “they otherwise would not take” to create change. And in the first 24 hours following the announcement of the Mandela 100 Festival, Global Citizen saw over 100 000 people register to be Global Citizen activists with over 1-million actions being taken in the first week alone.

But Sosibo posits that South Africans — unnamed and unsourced — responded with ‘scorn and ridicule’ to Global Citizens model of action as a currency for advocacy. The sign-up data above suggests otherwise. The level of interest from South Africans in the Global Citizen model has broken all records for first week sign-ups in a new market. His article also implies that this model of engagement is baseless, without offering any analysis or suggestions of alternative models of engagement.

The truth however is that Global Citizen has always operated through local partnerships, in this case, with the proud support of the Motsepe Foundation and my family, the House of Mandela. Far from being an ‘outsider perspective’ as Sosibo infers, the campaign planning and architecture has been thoughtfully designed in consultation with NGOs, activists, and partners from across South Africa and the continent.


Sosibo suggests that people will stop taking action once the show is over. Our experience suggests otherwise. Our data in other markets suggests that millions of Global Citizens continue to take action year-round, outside of any festival season. Indeed, the self-flagellating “resistance” activist model that Sosibo portrays is grossly out-of-touch with the experience of most millennial activists, who proudly balance their commitment to advancing society with their love of family, music and culture.

Yes, politicians on occasion break promises, which is reflected in the low levels of trust society has in government institutions. But because our activists take actions throughout the year and not just during events like the festival, we provide a platform for maintaining ongoing pressure on politicians who make commitments.

So far, more than R498-billion has been pledged in response to global citizen-led or partner-supported campaigns, and R134-billion of that money has been disbursed or transferred resulting in 648.9-million interventions to help people lift themselves out of extreme poverty — interventions that range from vaccinating a child to providing one year of education. We will call out those who are off track or fail to keep us abreast of delivery of their commitments. Speaking up and holding world leaders accountable when they break their promises is the work of responsible citizenship and we believe that Global Citizens in South Africa and beyond are up to the task.

I can understand where Mr Sosibo’s cynicism may come from. He’s seen 46664 concerts come and go. He’s seen LiveAid and LiveEarth and probably wondered what did they actually change or who did they inspire.

The answer is even though those events and moments weren’t perfect they did help create the next generation of activists who were inspired enough to carry on their work and this can not be overlooked.

In 2005, Rolihlahla urged the world to make poverty history. Although the world has made strides towards realising his vision, the great continent of Africa still has work to do to make sure all of its people can live in a world free of extreme poverty. And  Sosibo’s article serves to highlight the extent to which far too many people remain uninformed about how we can realise a world without poverty.

Ultimately it is easier to buy into cynicism and all too often it has become the norm. Perhaps this article shows us why new approaches are needed, both to highlight progress and to build new ways of action focused on realizing Tata’s unfinished work.

As he himself said: “Of course the task will not be easy. But not to do this would be a crime against humanity, against which I ask all humanity now to rise up.”

Kweku Mandela is an executive producer of Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100

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