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Showbiz and the SDGs

By Sarah Zeines

Monday, September 1, 2021



This post is an on-site edited version of The Geneva Observer's SUSTAINED - The SDGs Decoded bimonthly newsletter, September 1 2021 edition. To receive SUSTAINED directly in your inbox, register here.


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 organization with American corporate partners including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Citibank, Google and Comcast) would decide to have a presence in International Geneva.


J-Lo has become a regular GC ambassador. She will be performing in New York for the upcoming September 25th edition of the worldwide Global Citizen Live festival. Copyright: Camille May / ©Global Citizen


Global Citizen lands in staid Global Geneva | Showbiz and the SDGs |

SUSTAINED talked to Michael Sheldrick, co-founder of GC, about why GC 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.

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.”

GC co-founder Michael Sheldrick has made working closely with International Geneva one of his many priorities.

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; their goal behind the celebrity glitter.

“Many of the artists we work with use their social media channels to call on governments, to contribute to SDG causes,” explains Michael Sheldrick. “People are looking for ways to engage. These activities are an opportunity to involve people in finding solutions for many of the challenging issues of our time.”

On the SDG agenda

To say that GC’s team is busy is an understatement. The organisation’s growing involvement with International Geneva is one of Sheldrick’s priorities — a realisation which led him and his team to recruit Ruben Escalante Hasbun, a former diplomat from El Salvador. His new posting allows him, he tells Sustained, to focus on the city “where decisions are being made and where civil society needs to have its voice heard.” He will mainly be paying visits to 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 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, he would work with us each year to bring the Global Citizen Festival to a different city and rally support for the SDGs” 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, parallel to 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, we hosted, in partnership with the European Commission, ‘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 over $2 billion in cash grants for COVID-19 relief efforts and 26 million vaccines, all of which we track today.”

Other major celebrities have joined GC’s ranks over time. “Back in the spring, when India hit 400'000 [daily cases], Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas did a live Q&A feed on how people could take action. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex also partnered with us to promote vaccine equity efforts. We are of course grateful for the help of many broadcast partners.”

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 clear, practical 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? "By asking if there are 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 for any commitment announced on our stage.”

“There has been an enhanced interest and commitment from private entities to engage in the SDG agenda, for a variety of different reasons.” –Nadia Isler, SDG Lab

Global Citizen Live rallies crowds. Copyright: Camille May / © Global Citizen

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 realizing that […] their supply chain is directly influenced by the global challenges that we are facing today—whether social, economic or environmental.”

As GC highlighted earlier, ‘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 mobilising 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 depoliticise 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. 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.”

Sarah Zeines, with Philippe Mottaz.

Edited by: Dan Wheeler


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