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On the Environment

Wednesday, October 09, 2013
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From Metrics to Metronomes: UN Leaders Get Hip

By Guest Author, Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

What do headliner musicians like Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, John Mayer and Stevie Wonder have to do with the United Nations? Before the annual Global Citizen Festival, which took place in Central Park on September 28th to raise awareness about the global Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, I wouldn’t have made the connection. Nonetheless, I found myself rocking out to music alongside 75,000 other attendees—ranging from academics to hipster youth—who were supporting an end to extreme poverty even though they may not all have classified themselves as being socially minded.

The concert was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, and it was cleverly punctuated with special guests who talked about the importance of building a movement around poverty reduction. A recurring festival that travels the globe, it’s put together by the Global Poverty Project and the Cotton On Foundation, both international advocacy organizations that use new media to raise support for social issues.  

As an awareness-raising tactic, concert attendees had to do a series of online learning activities to be eligible for a ticket to the concert. Users racked up points by exploring the website for the Global Poverty Project and answering quiz questions based on, for instance, issue briefings and through watching videos and re-posting articles to their own blogs. Once a user accumulated 10 points, he or she was eligible to be in a drawing for tickets. It’s an interesting business model, and while I’m not sure everyone paid attention to the finer details of the games, I'm sure that some people did learn something new.

Much of the audience was young people and social media was a key feature of the show. The hashtag of the concert, #GlobalCitizen, was popular on Twitter and real-time tweets were displayed on the jumbo screens while the concert was rolling. Instagram was also littered with New York youth showing off their end-of-the-summer outing. It’s a clear sign that the ideas of the Millennium Development Goals and the United Nations are percolating down to “non-expert” demographics, broadening the reach so that perhaps the next generation will take up the cause.

At one point, while I was waiting in line to purchase the healthy food, the profits of which were to go toward alleviating poverty, I looked over to the stage and saw that Jeffrey Sachs--the famous professor of economics at Columbia and Director of the Earth Institute--was on stage. He was soon joined by the actress Olivia Wilde, and together they were commenting on ways to reduce extreme poverty. And if this duo didn’t already represent worlds colliding, Sachs brought onto the stage other special guests, including the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda.

That’s about when I was informed that the food ran out. The festival had not, it turns out, been prepared for the scale of its own success. It was a slight disappointment to those waiting in line, but showed how popular the event was.

Later in the night, former Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am took the stage and proclaimed his vast admiration for recycling, which I thought was valuable because he showed that sustainability can be a mainstream thing. He challenged the audience to make use of the recycling bins (dubbed “Ekocycle” bins) so that next year, he could wear a jacket made entirely of the recycled plastic gathered from this concert.

I left the concert early, a bit hungry from having missed out on the healthy food options. But while I was eating the notably less sustainable burger-and-fries option later, I soon regretted ducking out after I heard (through social media) that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself was on stage with Stevie Wonder, to offer one more exhortation to action before the closing performance.

In the end, this concert made me think that this kind of messaging and outreach campaign can be more effective in reaching the public than some of the academically oriented reporting that’s aimed at influencing the UN process. The presence of so many celebrities alongside leaders from the global South, where poverty is a pervasive problem, at this place in New York City led me to think that perhaps academics and policymakers might be finally understanding how to “get hip” with the new generation who will the global citizens that affect change in the future.

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