“Like” If You Want to End Global Poverty
By Julie UlbrichtSeptember 28, 2012
The number of people living in extreme poverty around the world has halved since 1981. Two Melbourne-born campaigners say there are 1.4 billion reasons we must bring the number of people living on less than USD1.25 a day to zero — with a concert in Central Park this weekend their latest fundraising, conscience-pricking project.
In the temporary offices of the Global Poverty Project in Greenwich Village, New York, earlier this week, Hugh Evans, a man with a knack for convincing people, was pulling in final favours.
The 67th United Nations General Assembly is drawing to a close, and on Saturday Evans and fellow Melburnian Simon Moss will present the Global Citizen Festival, a concert expected to attract 60,000 people to the Great Lawn of Central Park. Their biggest undertaking since co-founding the GPP in 2008, the festival has required all the combined skills of these two men — as backroom lobbyists, public campaigners and impresarios.
Playing the gig for free are Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Foo Fighters, The Black Keys, K'Naan and Band of Horses. The festival's promoter Goldenvoice has also waived its usual fee. In lieu of paying a ticket price, concertgoers were required ahead of time to spread the message about extreme poverty online — by signing a petition, watching a video, promoting charities on social media, or donating. For Moss and Evans, awareness, rather than money, is the goal, though they are using the festival to pressure businesses and governments for $500 million in new charity commitments.
It's been a busy couple of days. Evans was forced to turn down a speaking engagement at the UN ("Can pop culture impact public policy?") in order to undertake such activities as meeting with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown — they may collaborate on a future education campaign. But his team found time to convince Whoopi Goldberg to do voiceovers for videos that will screen during the festival.
A lean, buzzy 29-year-old who recently moved with his wife to New York, Evans is the high-octane, evangelising counterpart to Moss, who is thoughtful, wire-rim spectacled, and also 29. UK-based Moss holds a BA and Masters in development studies from the University of Melbourne, and has contributed to discussions at the G20, the World Economic Forum, and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is also the principal author of the Global Poverty Project's core document, 1.4 Billion Reasons. This interactive multimedia presentation has been delivered to more than 130,000 people in venues across the world, as part of an Al Gore-inspired grassroots awareness effort.
Moss and Evans met in 2004 at an inspirational speakers event organised by Moss at his old school Trinity Grammar in east Melbourne. "[Evans] was a fantastic public speaker and had great commitment to the cause [of ending extreme poverty]," says Moss, who liked Evans's ideas, though he had initial doubts about his religiousness (Evans is a devout Christian, Moss an atheist).
Whatever their differences, their commonly held ideas were greater, and they found a way to combine their campaigning efforts. Evans and Moss worked on a variety of anti-poverty initiatives including the Make Poverty History concert featuring a surprise appearance by fellow poverty fighter Bono. Finally, in 2008 the two founded The Global Poverty Project. The mission: "to increase the number and effectiveness of people taking action to end extreme poverty."
Extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank refers to the estimated 1.4 billion (recently reviewed to be 1.3 billion) living on less than USD1.25 a day.
Evans had the idea to create a compelling presentation, in the vein of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, on the subject of extreme poverty. But both he and Moss knew that they didn't have the credentials to write a presentation like this, so with resources and initial financial backing from the UN Millennium Campaign they flew to New York to assemble a content advisory panel. Made up of academics, economists, psychologists, business leaders and political advisors, the panel included Alan Court, Senior Advisor to the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Malaria, Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, Professor Jeffrey Sachs and former COO of SonyBMG, Michael Smellie.
The presentation begins with the uplifting news that since 1981 the percentage of the world's people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 52 per cent to 25 per cent in 2005. An analysis of the numbers by region indicates that while East Asia has had a dramatic drop in the number of its population living in extreme poverty (thanks, largely to the economic liberalisation of China and the East Asian tiger economies), the numbers in South East Asia have remained steady and are actually rising in sub-Saharan Africa. The Global Poverty Project's solution calls for a commitment to the UN's Millennium Development Goals, along with a combination of more effective aid, equitable and fair trade, less corruption, and "an enabling environment", which basically means a commitment to good governance structures in the poorest countries.
1.4 Billion Reasons is an inspiring, tear-jerking hour with moving videos and easy-to-understand graphs. Moss says the audience leaves feeling that they can make a difference. More importantly, they leave wanting to make a difference and 1.4 Billion Reasons gives specific directives — buy Fair Trade coffee, write a letter to your MP, learn more, and talk about the presentation with friends and family.
As the presentation was being seen by an increasing number of people, Evans and Moss realised they needed to demonstrate to their supporters in the US, the UK and Australia just how the Global Poverty Project could make an impact on the world's poorest people and a plan to put some muscle behind one of the developing world's most persistent problems was formulated.
The End of Polio campaign, launched by Moss and Evans in 2011, was designed to show the world how public support can make all the difference in a global humanitarian issue.
Polio worldwide has already been 99 per cent eradicated. Moss and Evans' campaign aims to finish the job by advocating to close the $945 million funding gap the World Health Organisation says is needed to rid the world of the debilitating disease once and for all. If the challenges of eradicating global poverty are myriad and unwieldy, the End of Polio campaign's goal is achievable, and as such it holds clear political appeal.
In September 2011, Julia Gillard announced a funding commitment of $50 million towards the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Moss and Evans also convinced the philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates to contribute $40 million (Gates has made polio eradication the top priority of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and given $1.3 billion to the cause since 2005); Nigeria pledged $13 million; and Canada gave $15 million — which came to a total of $118 million. To get the funding, the Global Poverty Project orchestrated everything, including media opportunities that would play well for donors and the project alike — such as Gillard's press conference, a joint op-ed by Gates and Gillard in Fairfax newspapers, and the End of Polio concert headlined by R&B star John Legend.
The campaign was funded, thanks in part to a USD1.5 million donation given by American billionaire and media tycoon Sumner Redstone. Redstone was apparently sufficiently impressed with Evans that he pledged the funding after a single meeting, even though the End of Polio was initially an Australian campaign.
A few months later, Evans went back to Redstone and spoke of how just a third of his donation had turned into $118 million and asked for more. Redstone gave another USD650,000, which is going towards the Global Citizen Festival this year, where the End of Polio will continue be a major focus, now with an international platform.
The Evans and Moss methodology is to woo and collaborate with philanthropists and world leaders, but not all anti-poverty advocates are convinced of the merit of their model.
Two main approaches seem to dominate mainstream attempts to eradicate extreme poverty. The first is the United Nations/Jeffrey Sachs prescription: ensure governments keep their aid commitments, and that aid is spent more effectively; and implement structural changes in the way the world conducts trade — using the Millennium Development Goals, which Sachs helped create, as a framework.
The second is embodied in the teachings of economist William Easterly. Foreign Policy magazine placed Easterly as number 39 on its 2009 list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, equal with Sachs. Easterly has made it his life's work to puncture holes in what he calls the 'ideology of development.' Speaking at Columbia University in August 2011, he said: "What must we do to end world poverty? ... It's the wrong question… This question only makes sense for autocrats with unlimited powers who are going to be the 'we' that imposes some answer on 'them', the poor. The aid system as a whole is an autocratic paternalistic system with no serious opportunity for a voice or feedback from the intended beneficiaries of this system."
Dr James Goodman is a director of AID/WATCH, an organisation founded in 1982 to scrutinise how Australian aid money is spent. To the casual observer, there are parallels between AID/WATCH and the Global Poverty Project — both are membership-based and campaign for wider public awareness, and both are concerned with the structures that perpetuate poverty, especially when it comes to trade. But Goodman says Easterly's critique of development is closely aligned with AID/WATCH's assessment of global poverty.
He says the Global Poverty Project is outdated, and an instrument of what he calls a 'paternalistic' approach of the UN and Sachs. "It's a globalist project where they believe they can make a difference by bringing people into their way of doing things," he says. "The Millennium Development Goals are just a rebranding of the same old top-down colonial way of thinking. And the very objectives they pursue can perpetuate poverty. Trade and growth are among their key priorities, but who benefits?"
When asked what the Global Poverty Project should instead be doing with the attention of the masses, Dr Goodman replied, "Expose the existing orthodoxy as self-serving", citing AID/WATCH's instrumental role in uncovering the Australian Wheat Board oil-for-food scandal in 2006.
"The festival concerns me," he says, "Definitely. Sometimes these organisations lead people into a dead end on personal humanitarianism."
Nick Allardice, the Australian director of social-movement platform Change.org, and friend and former colleague of Moss, applauds the Global Poverty Project.
"Some of the biggest barriers to long-term sustainable development in the poorest countries are not in their control because of the global power structures in place that privilege developed countries, for example, agricultural subsidies," he says. "Those barriers can only be dismantled by those countries themselves, and the political leaders who make those decisions are accountable almost exclusively to their voters."
Moss and Evans have tasked themselves with introducing complex concepts to the masses, and everybody The Global Mail spoke to agreed on the complexity of that endeavour. They also underscored the importance of establishing sustained public support. The question is, after, say, attending the Global Citizen Festival, what next? Moss says it takes groups both like AID/WATCH and the Global Poverty Project to combat poverty, but the festival is an important step.
"The concert is like the peak of a wave," he says. "It's still gotta break, but it has a huge amount of momentum and power behind it."
Again, it has to be said that while Moss and Evans' main goal is to generate awareness and understanding of poverty as a problem, they also have concrete goals for their organisation. As well as the $500 million in charity pledges it hopes to secure, the GPP is reiterating a call to national leaders to commit 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to tackling poverty.
"While the Festival will be a moment, there will be challenges put forward," Moss says. But, for Evans and Moss, the GPP's overarching goal is to convince people that they can have agency in a giant global issue such as extreme poverty.
"Telling stories is more important than just asking people for money," says Moss. "It is actually about trying to shape the way we see the world and give people a chance and see how their actions connect up to people on the other side of the planet."
Many are wary of the online viral campaigning approach, particularly after Kony 2012, the phenomenally successful viral campaign, meant to draw attention to the crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, which became a PR disaster for its organisers, the Invisible Children organisation.
But international development blogger Tom Murphy says the Global Poverty Project is not like flash-in-the-pan advocacy group Invisible Children. Though he criticised Live Below the Line, an early Global Poverty Project campaign which encouraged people in the US, the UK and Australia to live on US1.25 for a week in order to experience poverty first hand, Murphy was impressed with Moss's sanguine approach to criticism. And Moss's understanding of the issues involved is impeccable, says Murphy, pointing to a TEDx talk Moss gave last year in London, "Africa is poor and five other myths".
"Moss recognises this is a messy space," he says, "I don't envy him. He knows he has an obligation to deal with his audience and what they understand of international development is limited."
In the Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris, Simon Moss's mother Deborah is, unsurprisingly, also speaking admiringly of her son. Deborah Moss has polio and during the End of Polio campaign, Simon wrote about living with a mother who had the debilitating disease. While Simon has been overseas dozens of times and now lives permanently in London, until recently his mother had never left the country. But she cashed in the little super she had left and applied for her passport, so that she could be in Central Park this weekend. Evans' parents will also be there.
Deborah Moss puts the aims of the GPP founders into context: "They are both private school boys… [who] have both seen there is a lot of injustice out there," she says. "There's a lot of shit that goes on, lots of injustice in the world and there are a lot of people like me who know nothing. These guys make it easy to understand."