What’s the Problem with Trendy Social Justice?

On September 24, thousands of people will gather in Central Park to fight poverty. Their weapon of choice is unusual. They will not protest, do volunteer work, or donate money. They will attend a free concert.

What is the Global Citizens Festival?

The concert is called the Global Citizens Festival and it’s been the staple event of The Global Poverty Project since 2012.

People can attend the show for free by earning “points” through completing various tasks like tweeting at a government official or getting friends to download the Global Citizen app. This year Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna are headlining and Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, and a bunch of other famous people are making guest appearances.

There’s plenty of things to be depressed about in the world, but one thing to get excited about is how hungry young people are for social justice. Those with wealth and opportunities are interested in figuring out how to make sure other people also have wealth and opportunities. Not everyone and not perfectly, but the desire is there.

The unwritten goal of the Festival is to make social justice and political activism cool by leveraging the popularity of music festivals, social media, and star power. It’s a work of pure marketing genius.

What does the Global Citizens Festival Actually Do?

Most of the actions people have to take to get free tickets to the festival can be completed in less than five minutes. Download the Festival’s app and with one click of a button you can send out pre-scripted tweets. You can also get points for using a specific hashtag on an Instagram post or convincing friends to become Global Citizens (apparently all one has to do to become a global citizen is download the app).

The Festival is advertised as a way to help “solve the world’s biggest challenges.” More specifically, the organization’s goal is to end world poverty by 2030.

It’s a noble goal, but as you might be aware, it’s not actually theirs. It’s ripped from the Sustainable Development Goals, a list of goals the United Nations is working to accomplish by 2030. Number one on the list is No Poverty.

Obviously, the United Nations could use all the help it can get and mobilizing millions of people in unified pursuit of these goals would be helpful. Does one night of celebrity entertainment with the occasional political call for action help spur this action?

Christina Nuñez, an Editor for Global Citizen, claims the Festival is effective because “global citizens are empowered to hold leaders accountable to the commitments made on stage.”

But Benjamin Cohen and Elliott Ross, writing for The Nation, say most of the politicians who appear at the event have already made commitments to these causes. They claim the festival is a great way to give these politicians publicity for commitments they have already made.

“From the perspective of the world’s poor,” write Cohen and Ross, “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.”

Making Social Justice Trendy

The Global Poverty Project’s biggest success is figuring out how to make social justice trendy. It’s a big accomplishment to get thousands of people to gather on behalf of ending world poverty and the Global Citizens Festival does it. The problem is that the Festival then becomes a celebration instead of a call to action. It mobilizes people to show up, then instead of working on ways to actually end poverty, it pats them on the back if they’ve accomplished something.

Nothing is Free

It’s also worth noting that the artists who appear and perform at this event benefit enormously, both financially and personally. The performers don’t play for free. Word on the street is Beyonce was paid $80,000 to headline the concert last year. Let that sink in. An organization attempting to eradicate world poverty paid a performer $80,000 for a few hours of their time.

Who’s Benefiting?

Three groups of people benefit from this type of event. Celebrities (who need all the good publicity they can get to justify their extravagant existences), politicians, and normal people like you and me, who want to feel good about ourselves. None of this is inherently bad, but let’s stop lying to ourselves by pretending it’s about helping other people.

The Cost and The Impact

The concert may be free for those who attend, but it’s enormously expensive to put on.

Roger Friedman points out that $7.1 million of the organization’s overhead went to putting on the concert in 2014. Only about $100,000 of the $10.5 million the group claimed in revenue for the year went to any tangible poverty event.

The only reason this extravagant number would be justifiable is if the positive outcomes from the concert add up to the more than $7 million they invest in it.

But the Global Citizens Festival doesn’t raise any money, and even if it did, money raised from charity concerts is often enormously difficult to access and use effectively.

“True, this festival will not change the world,” wrote Michael Sheldrick, the head of policy and advocacy Global Citizen, for The Guardian in 2013. “To claim otherwise would demonstrate breathtaking naivety and arrogance. But a festival like this can serve as a catalyst to help build a genuine movement, and as a worldwide stage – broadcasted to millions – from which we can call on leaders to keep their promises to the world’s poor.”

Since the Festival doesn’t raise money this catalyst is the key to its existence, but there’s no proof that those who attend the concert are committed to holding leaders accountable in the long term.

The Festival’s impact report from 2013 is packed with huge numbers, but few are related to any tangible change.

They aren’t listing how their work impacted the lives of those who live in poverty or the amount of money they’ve raised. It’s all about awareness, which they’ve chosen to measure through online impressions and social media reach. The success of their business rests on the massive assumptions that social media activity translates to “action” for social justice.

We Can do Better

Given the audacity of the claims the Global Poverty Project makes about their work, it’s frustrating how few people have criticized their model and impact. It’s taboo to criticize nonprofit work or people who are attempting to do some good in the world, but criticism isn’t a sign of hate or disdain, it’s an acknowledgement that the goal of the Global Poverty Project is important, and they don’t need to be coddled in their pursuit of it.

Events like the Global Citizens Festival strengthen an illusion that the world’s biggest problems can be fixed in one night with a hashtag. It encourages people to shirk personal responsibility for the millions of ways their lifestyle choices harm others. Then it rewards them for minimal action with a night of entertainment.

In essence, what the Global Citizens Festival has done is not “solve the world’s biggest challenges” but created a fun way for privileged people to assuage their guilt.

“The gulf between equality and the semblance of equality remains whilst companies profit from simplified, bite-size chunks of liberalism, “ writes Joanna Taylor. “It puts social justice in danger of becoming irrevocably middle-class—a brand that the working-classes can’t afford and have little interest in, because it never seems to address their concerns.”

Face Facts

The truth is social change requires much more from us as individuals than rebranding things we already do for our personal amusement as things that are good for the world. If you feel guilty for having a lot for rights you haven’t earned or shared it’s going to take much more than a concert to change that. You will have to reimagine your life bit by bit.

You know what would actually help solve the world’s biggest challenges? Working for changes that don’t rely on the cult of celebrity for people to care about them. Ending the entitled expectation that service should be easy, fun and only take a day. Supporting the people already doing the unglamorous work of changing the world and aren’t paid $80,000 for hours of their time.

The Global Citizens Festival dresses up consumerism and mindless entertainment and parades them as forces for good. It’s not social justice, it’s just a social activity. Let’s call it what it is.

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