This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete SUSTAINED - THE SDGS DECODED newsletter of September 1st, 2021
How are Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, J-Lo and Miley Cyrus — to name but a few — helping raise awareness about the SDGs? Music celebrities are joining the cause, and they are doing so largely thanks to the efforts of Global Citizen. With a stated mission to “change the world,” the organization is not entirely immune to lofty pronouncements in the pursuit of its goals: “Defeat poverty,” “Defend the planet” and “Demand equity.” It is only natural that with such an agenda, Global Citizen (a massively-funded organisation with American corporate partners including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Citibank, Google and Comcast) would decide to have a presence in International Geneva.
SUSTAINED talked to Michael Sheldrick, co-founder of GC, about why the organisation decided to land here. It was a stimulating and engaging conversation — and led to another, about the challenges of philanthropic partnerships, as SDG Lab’s Director Nadia Isler and Dr. Martin Scott (who conducted a study on the roles played by celebrities in advancing social justice) debate the pros and cons of engaging with showbiz.
In our SDGs-related News Brief, we highlight a raging debate around ESG metrics — the environmental, sustainable and governance indicators that are seen as a way to assess companies’ green performance. “The ESG investing industry is dangerous,” the FT decided to put it, reporting on a white paper penned by a BlackRock top gun.
And be sure not to miss another of our short films, part of the award-winning film anthology Interdependence, produced in Geneva.
Global Citizen lands in staid Global Geneva | Showbiz and the SDGs | Are ESG metrics a solution or a problem?
After over a decade of involvement with International Geneva’s landscape, the SDG-focused organisation, which has raised nearly 128 million dollars in 2020 alone and billions over the years, is enhancing its presence in Geneva. Its partnership strategies stand out in the historically reserved institutional culture of the city…
Global Citizen’s (GC) Michael Sheldrick is in a dimly-lit cabin in Alaska when he takes Sustained’s call on Monday. “I’m on leave for a few days, as we are just four weeks ahead of our global festival,” he confides. “Alaska is far behind the rest of the world. It’s a great place for juggling work and leisure. I make a lot of early morning calls and then get to enjoy other activities during the afternoons.”
The Australian-born 33-year-old has a good reason for skipping coffee to talk to Sustained. Sheldrick and his team are currently managing an upcoming worldwide event, while actively engaging with members at the World Health Organisation, GAVI or Global Fund. On September 25th, Global Citizen Live will rally the likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Jennifer Lopez and Billie Eillish, to name just a few, for a 24-hour marathon of live shows on six continents and in 8 cities—the largest event the organisation has created to date. The worldwide music festival will be focused on defeating extreme poverty and defending the planet—with an important call for vaccine equity—but is first and foremost GC’s ‘ode’ to the SDGs; the goals behind the celebrity glitter.
“Many of the artists we work with use their channels, such as social media and connections with governments, to contribute to SDG causes,” explains Michael Sheldrick. “People are looking for ways to engage. Our activities are an opportunity to involve them in finding solutions for many of the challenging issues of our time.”
On the SDG agenda
To say that the GC’s representatives are busy is an understatement. The organisation’s growing involvement in International Geneva’s landscape is one of Sheldrick’s top priorities—a realisation which led him and his team to recruit Ruben Escalante Hasbun, ex-diplomat for the Salvadoran government. This new position is designed to focus on the city “where decisions are being made and where civil society needs to have its voice heard,” according to Escalante Hasbun. The expert will mainly be visiting Geneva’s policymakers on GC’s behalf and participating in a variety of UN, WHO and global health policy events, as well as coordinating relations with Geneva-based organisations.
“Our model is basically public diplomacy, with a fairly equal amount of attention to engagement with governments, the private sector and philanthropy. We aim to move them into making financial or policy commitments under the different areas of our work — which are quite diverse, but all connected to the SDG agenda,” explains Escalante Hasbun.
How the SDGs harnessed the power of fame and money
The organisation’s glamorous side emerged back in 2012 with the help of Chris Martin. Coldplay’s lead singer wanted to reach more people with the SDGs’ messages. “He said that since he wasn’t a head of state and able to influence policy directly, we should mount a festival and take it to a different city each year,” recounts Sheldrick. “Since we were also working closely with the Nelson Mandela family, South Africa became one of our spots. Our idea was to get fans throughout the globe involved in the SDGs.”
The movement gained traction over the years, in parallel with the different crises that have swayed global policy. “Last year, our ‘Together at Home’ event, curated by Lady Gaga, raised 127.9 million dollars through over 700,000 actions taken by our global citizens, in support of the WHO and organizations providing on-the-ground relief for COVID-19. Two months later, in partnership with the European Commission, we hosted ‘Global Goal: Unite for Our Future’, another global broadcast event aimed at mitigating the pandemic’s impact on those living in extreme poverty. In May this year came ‘VAX LIVE: The Concert to Reunite the World’, a global broadcast and in-person event held at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, in front of an audience of fully-vaccinated frontline and essential workers. As a result of key partnerships and campaigning, all three events resulted in pledges totalling $2 billion in cash grants, 26 million vaccines, and $5.4 billion in financing for global COVID-19 relief efforts, all of which we track today.”
Other major celebrities have joined GC’s ranks over time. “Recently, when India hit 4000 [daily cases], Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas did a live Q&A feed. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are also encouraging people around the world to become Global Citizens. We are of course dependent on the help of many broadcast partners, such as Vanguard media, Thomson Reuters Foundation and MSNBC, to achieve communications.”
Support for GC also comes from the private sector. Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Accenture, and Citibank are some of the many corporate partners that have joined the organisation’s cause to support SDGs. How do these financial heavyweights align with goals like zero hunger or zero poverty? In metaphorical terms, how does one play a fair game of ball with a teammate who follows a completely different set of rules?
“The question we should really be asking is, what practical role can the private sector and businesses play? Agencies in Geneva can find ways for the private sector to engage more by setting standards. In the last 18 months, we have developed a set of red lines to determine whether any new corporate partners are the right fit for our mission or not.” How? “We ask if there are any sanctions against them, what their current ESG score is, and, most importantly, whether or not they intend to sign the UN Global Compact. Of course, the key component in these partnerships is accountability. Every company must report back on its progress.”
The necessity of Big Money
When it comes to their marketing strategy and SDG 17 (Global Partnerships for Sustainable Development), GC is applying old methods to new global contexts. Public and private alliances have existed for decades, just as celebrities have been representing philanthropic causes since the birth of pop culture. What has changed, in a general sense, is the growing interest of the private sector in the messages promoted by civil society and international organisations. “There has been an enhanced interest and commitment from private entities to engage in the SDG agenda, for a variety of different reasons,” highlights SDG Lab’s Director Nadia Isler. “One of them is that they are realising that […] their supply chain is directly influenced by the global challenges that we are facing today — whether social, economic or environmental.”
‘Quick fixes’ with corporate partners should be avoided at all costs: “There needs to be an initial conversation about mutual objectives and concerns, due diligence, pressure points and accountability. A discussion that spells out what’s in it for each of the partners, identifying early on what the opportunities and risks could be. Entities often enter into quick fix partnerships thinking that there is a silver bullet to solve the issues they are targeting. Yet for partnerships to be sustainable and systemic, all the different viewpoints of a problem need to be represented around the table. This is one of the reasons the SDG Lab was created: to build bridges between often unexpected partners, to nudge institutions to create that mutual trust and ask those tough questions at the beginning. Unfortunately, what we often see is that partnerships are not thought through carefully enough.”
When should a corporate partner be red flagged? When does a union between two entities with radically different missions become problematic? “The risk of conflicts of interests is a concern that we should always have on our radar, regardless of the SDGs that is being addressed, says Nadia Isler. It’s about understanding what drives a partner to engage. There are also legally binding agreements that protect the partnerships.
The limits of fame for the SDGs
Dr Martin Scott, who is an Associate Professor at the University of East Anglia, believes that celebrity outreach has its “limits when it comes to addressing the great developmental issues of our time.” His 2014 study, titled “The role of celebrities in mediating distant suffering,” highlights that fame itself is not enough to achieve lasting change.
“Celebrity engagement in certain issues is often inefficient in durably mobilizing citizens,” notes the researcher. “The circumstances [required] for celebrities to get citizens to engage in distant issues [are rare]. Research also shows that in order to engage elites in your issue you don’t necessarily need to engage the public. Many initiatives use celebrities, but media attention [on] this type of content is limited. Only the highest profile celebrities have a good chance at breaking through to the public. The more famous you are, the more likely you are to get social media hits and traditional media coverage. But even then, there is no guarantee.”
The roles played by celebrities are therefore often targeted towards decision makers, as opposed to communications towards an established fanbase. “NGOs cultivate relationships with celebrities who come into the room and represent the public—research has shown that there is a general belief that celebrities represent the public. The belief is mistaken, but it still works!”
Scott also warns against the tendency of these communications to do a disservice to the causes they address. “These initiatives also tend to be simplistic. Often, celebrity-led campaigns over-simplify, trivialise and depoliticize issues. It’s very hard to get the right fit between a celebrity and a campaign. Celebrities are not a magic bullet for making campaigns effective.”
Nadia Isler has another take on this last point: “Role models are important in raising awareness important in raising awareness. They need to be diversified, context-specific individuals who share universal messages. A big idea coming out of the SDGs is that every single person has a role to play in this massive endeavour. Whether you are talking to your peers at school or you are a CEO trying to align your business model to the SDGs, every action counts.”
Sustained News in Brief
ESG efficiency slashed by corporate heavyweights
The raging debate around ESG efficiency has reached new heights this past week. Two entrepreneurs — Tariq Fancy of The Rumie Initiative and Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard—believe that ESG investing is an illusion.
Tariq Fancy, the ex-CIO of sustainable investing at BlackRock, thinks that environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investing is intellectually bankrupt, and even damages the causes it espouses to support. The arguments behind Fancy’s comments—which came in a string of direct and unambiguous Medium posts — have been made before in one form or another, but not by someone of his stature. Regardless of where you fall on the efficiency of ESG investing, the intervention hits home in the sense that a new conversation about its goals and usage is needed.
Fancy’s stand reminds Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard about how to operate in business, even though corporate activities implicitly include polluting and hurting the planet. “Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact, and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable.”
It might be time for some more honesty around ESG indicators to save them from themselves.
New SDG indicator for finance
The UN Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) is tackling target 17.3, which regulates the tracking of financial flows. The proposed change would entail using existing data sources to assess these movements, rather than requiring additional reporting burdens for recipient countries. Amongst the privileged sources: OECD databases and the Development Assistance Committee Creditor Reporting System.
Gravel and sand bring SDGs to a standstill
In developing countries, gravel and sand extraction creates conflicts with half of the SDGs, according to a McGill University Summary. The report states that the 32 to 50 billion tonnes extracted globally each year wreak havoc on the environmental dynamics of the surrounding ecosystems—not to mention the pollution, health-related issues and informal nature of mining activities. The researchers add that eradicating the market is not a viable solution, as it is responsible for employing a vast number of people.
Small islands summoned by the FAO
The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Qu Dongyu, called on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to enhance efforts on SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (No hunger) and SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities). 39 states, from the South Pacific, to the Caribbean, to the Indian Ocean, were represented at the meeting, which put the spotlight on technological advances. “Innovation and digitalization bring opportunities in the face of challenges,” said Qu, quoted by Relief Web.
This week, SUSTAINED brings you ‘QURUT’, a film by Shahrbanoo Sadat about about how one of Afghanistan’s most popular dairy-based meals is in jeopardy due to the effects of climate change on rain patterns and soil fertility.* *Interdependence, a series of eleven short (5 to 11 minute) films, was the winner of the Best Narrative Feature at the London Eco Film Festival, in March 2021. The film was produced under the patronage of the UNO in Geneva, WMO and the City of Milan. With production by ART for The World, and Geneva Concept by Adelina von Fürstenberg, the stories, created by eleven international filmmakers from various continents, reflect the intertwining relationships between mankind and the environment, and how they are worsened by climate change in various ways—also hinting at possible solutions. With the participation of the filmmakers Faouzi Bensaïdi (Morocco), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Tchad), Ása Hjörleifsdóttir (Iceland), Salome Lamas (Portugal), Bettina Oberli (Switzerland), Nila Madhab Panda (India), Shahrbanoo Sadat (Afghanistan), Silvio Soldini (Italy), Daniela Thomas (Brazil), Leon Wang (China), Karin Williams (New Zealand).
Today's Sustained: Sarah Zeines and Philippe Mottaz
Edited by: Dan Wheeler