“Global Citizenship” is Becoming a Brand Instead of a Way of Being

This September, 50,000 people gathered on Central Park’s Great Lawn in New York City for arguably the best concert of the year. The 3rd Global Citizen Festival featured Beyonce, JAY Z, No Doubt, Sting, Carrie Underwood, and the Roots, alongside 15 national leaders—in town for UN Week—and close to 100 other celebrities. Their mission: end extreme poverty.

The Global Citizen festival is an initiative of the Global Poverty Project (GPP) that seeks to “grow the number and effectiveness of Global Citizens to achieve the public, business, and political commitment and action to end extreme poverty” by 2030.

GPP and the Global Citizen Festival are not alone in this pursuit. The World Bank, the UN Foundation, and several other organizations are allied with this target date in mind. What is unique about the Global Citizen campaign is its insistence that such efforts are principally oriented around justice, and a need for countries and corporations to pledge more dollars in aid to bring about this end.

Read this article in the print issue:


While I enthusiastically endorse all efforts to end poverty, I can’t help but notice that this campaign exposes two fundamental flaws in its construct. First, the campaign suggests that the answer to extreme poverty is a call for more of what has, heretofore, been largely ineffective: aid. For over 50 years, with the best of intentions, national aid agencies and multilateral organizations, like the World Bank, have poured billions into aid, and yet billions continue to live below the poverty line, lack access to clean water, and die from easily curable disease.

Can the right answer actually be “more of the same”?

More problematically, however, the Global Citizen campaign confuses outrage over the injustice of extreme poverty with the notion of global citizenship. The campaign seeks to promote a culture of clicktivism that rewards online actions with tickets to Usher, instead of promoting a culture of good citizenship that endorses respectful curiosity for all people of the world.

It’s unclear whether the 1.75 million actions taken by 250,000 “global citizens” were primarily motivated by a quest for justice or an opportunity to get up close and personal with JAY Z. The world is almost certainly better off for having 250,000 people who are more aware of the great development challenges facing our world, but I fear the campaign’s information may not be as well-researched as one might hope.

For example, the page celebrating the countless pledges made from the stage during the concert on September 27 sought to draw attention to the absence of sanitation infrastructure in much of the world. The author claimed that “30 million people in Nepal currently defecate in the open.” Upon reading this citation, I wondered at the number, thinking it quite high for a small country, like Nepal. Indeed, further inquiry showed Nepal’s current population to be approximately 27 million, and the number of visitors to be close to 800,000 each year. This would suggest that Nepal is a country entirely devoid of sanitation infrastructure in which all people are forced to relieve themselves in public. This is clearly not the case, and such hyperbole could likely lead to outrage in quite another way.

I didn’t take the time to verify every other number quoted on the page, but I wondered at the use of information without citation. While I did find this particular error unfortunate, the fundamental issue lies in the use of inflammatory information—both true and exaggerated—to convince people that the “net profits” of their $27 purchase of a T-shirt, two bracelets, a USB keychain, a door sign, and a Global Citizen sticker pack can meaningfully affect the injustice of extreme poverty.

On the other side of the globe, another group of visionaries undertook a similarly confusing endeavor. Based in Dubai, UAE, Global Citizen magazine is “a bi-monthly title that provides readers with a wealth of articles covering investment opportunities and destinations, real estate trends, entrepreneurial profiles, philanthropy, and challenges facing the region’s leading business leaders.” It also features “an impressive lifestyle section focusing on everything from the arts and travel to luxury cars, male grooming and fashion, gadgets, and dining out.” The cover of each issue to date has featured an A-list celebrity, including Jimmy Carter, George Clooney, Jon Hamm, Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey, and Oprah Winfrey. While one must admire their marketing panache, are we supposed to believe that the definition of a “global citizen” is an ultra-wealthy man or woman? I should hope not.

In both cases, the notion of global citizenship has been co-opted as a symbol of status, rather than a way of being.

For centuries, citizenship has been a designation of political rights; individuals had responsibilities as citizens, often designated in a nation’s constitution, and in turn, enjoyed protections provided by their state. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, the protections and privileges of the state have, in many ways, been surpassed by the cohesion of the masses. In March of 2013, another group, The Global Citizen’s Initiative, or TGCI, launched the Amherst Declaration on Global Citizenship, which identifies the eight values a global citizen should hold.

This publication seeks to build on that foundation, providing a portal through which everyday people can better understand the ideal of global citizenship not just as a hypothetical construct but as a useful guide that informs our ability to engage appropriately, purposefully, and globally every day.

Listening means discovering more impact, hearing (and sharing) more stories, amplifying the incredible difference global engagement can make—both when we do it right, and when we do it wrong.

This world view is not about fostering a culture of clicktivism, but about changing how things are done, and telling the stories of those who are willing to lead the way in thinking and acting differently. It requires adopting an individual mandate to be good citizens who embrace and celebrate the opportunity to connect with and learn from one another, to be curious about the languages, cultures, and histories of those around us. Individual mind-set, manifested as personal leadership, is the most fundamental way each person on earth can contribute to transforming the global status quo.

In his 2012 TED talk, Ernesto Sirolli, the founder of The Sirolli Institute, suggests that there is only one way to actually do this: “shut up and listen.” Listening means discovering more impact, hearing (and sharing) more stories, amplifying the incredible difference global engagement can make—both when we do it right, and when we do it wrong. So much becomes possible if we can better understand how innovative and impactful approaches are changing the way people are empowered to define their own lives and livelihoods in the far-reaching corners of the world.

In this worldview, xenophobia, as much as poverty, is a destructive adversary that must be eradicated. What’s more, a skin-deep understanding is little better. Awareness isn’t actually helpful unless it drives a change in perspective and understanding that ultimately changes behavior.

As global citizens actively choosing to continue our growth along a spectrum of global engagement, it is our responsibility to bring others along, to see one, do one, and teach one.

What will you do today to help someone you know start their journey, to listen to others, to share their story, to discover their world?

This is the world of the new global citizen. This is your world.

Alicia Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>