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Four takeaways from the Global Citizen Festival

Ed Sheeran and Chris Martin pose onstage during 2015 Global Citizen Festival. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Global Citizen

This is a part of a series of dispatches correspondent Tom Murphy is writing from New York during the U.N. General Assembly and all the related events.

(New York) A concert in Central Park on Saturday night brought together tens of thousands of mostly young people to rally around the newly enshrined Global Goals for sustainable development. Musical acts Coldplay, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran and Pearl Jam provided the entertainment. Videos from world leaders commended the audience for taking social actions, mostly on social media, to earn their free tickets for the event. Special guests between performances included celebrities like Kerry Washington, Vice President Joe Biden and Malala Yousafzai.

I was there for the full day to see the event and here are a few takeaways from the event.

Fight the…?

Connie Britton, Sophia Bush, Katie Holmes, and Kerry Washington pal around backstage at the Global Citizen Festival. (Tom Murphy)

Connie Britton, Sophia Bush, Katie Holmes and Kerry Washington pal around backstage at the Global Citizen Festival. (Tom Murphy)

Amid all the announcements and pledges (more on that later) that took place throughout the day, the issue of power was essentially ignored. The collective message was to do more in order to achieve the leading Global Goal of ending extreme poverty, as well as the 16 other goals. With a few exceptions, the people gracing the stage were the world’s most powerful people. They talked about the need to address their issue of choice – Leonardo DiCaprio made a plea for the environment, for example. The plea in each case was for more. There was the ask for more money, or more commitments, or more education/toilets/vaccines.

Transitions between people were seamless because it was a comfortable affair. Big Bird was not going to confront World Bank President Jim Kim when he joined him on stage about people displaced by its programs. Joe Biden did not have to address U.S. support of Saudi Arabia in its bombing of Yemen. Nobody pressed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the peacekeepers who brought cholera to Haiti.

But there were two notable announcements…

Sen Chris Coons speaks with World Bank President Jim Kim back stage at Global Citizen Festival. (Tom Murphy)

Sen. Chris Coons speaks with World Bank President Jim Kim back stage at Global Citizen Festival. (Tom Murphy)

The average viewer likely missed two very important announcements during the night. First came from Frans Timmermans, vice president of European Commission. He pledged an additional $500 million from the EC to address the Syrian refugee crisis. And to make the intent clear, he reiterated the commitment noting that it is “additional money” to already-allocated initiatives.

“We want this money to focus on education, livelihoods, food security. To target especially children and young people. And we guarantee that this funding will not be at the expense of our existing development aid budget,” he said.

There are a lot of needs for the surge in Syrian refugees fleeing for Europe. Money right there at the top. The crisis far exceeds the current response and the additional money will alleviate some of the pressure on the region.

Later, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons brought attention to his introduction of the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2015. It helps reform a broken food aid system that is in desperate need of fixing.

The process of shipping food aid from the U.S. is grossly inefficient. Of the $17.9 billion spent on food aid between 2003 and 2012, $9.2 billion of it went to getting the food to people in need. It takes, on average, 69 days for food aid to go out for delivery, and another 51 days to reach its destination.

“We need a new approach to food aid, an approach that reaches more people faster in times of need,” said Coons.

Sen. Coons is not alone in endorsing sensible food aid reform to make sure that every dollar is spent has the most impact. But the shipping lobby stands in the way of doing the right thing. Previous versions of the current bill have failed to pass Congress, despite strong bipartisan support. It is an issue that appeals to all political sides – ensuring money spent by the government does not go to waste.

Malala goes off script for impassioned plea for girls education…

First Lady Michelle Obama came on stage following Beyonce’s performance to kick it over to Bono who then introduced Pakistani girl’s education activist Malala Yousafzai and four of her friends from Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria.

Each of the girls introduced themselves before Malala introduced herself and delivered her remarks. Before she could say her name the crowd erupted into cheers – easily the loudest for any guest not named Beyonce. The screen in front of her showed the prepared speech, but she didn’t read a word of it. She made a personal challenge to the audience and leaders of the world to make education the primary goal.

“I’m asking for a basic human right. … Education should be the top priority for our leaders. … It’s not that there is lack of money in this world. We have billions and trillions of dollars, but where the money goes is military; it’s things that are useless and that are not useful to society,” she said.

By going off script, Malala offered one of the few moments where a real challenge was made to the world’s most powerful.

Beyonce was the main draw…

There were probably many people at the concert because they care about global poverty. But there is no doubt that the night was about Beyonce. Spontaneous cheers broke out earlier in the event when audience members thought Queen Bey was about to take the stage. The introduction of her as the third act of the day Salma Hayek Pinault was drowned out the moment the audience realized the person they came to see was finally going to perform.

A noticeable wave of people in the front of the crowd rushed forward to get as close as possible. The celebrities who milled around behind the stage for the first three hours gathered to the front of the stage. Security and police officers joined in on the sing-along and enjoyment of the spectacle that was Beyonce.

I suspected that many people were taking the actions to get to the concert because of Beyonce. It is hard to know what actually drove people to attend, but there is no doubt she was a massive draw for the audience. Whether that desire coupled with the exposure to a rallying cry for the Global Goals matriculated into their consciousness remains to be seen.

I am not above it all…

I can’t be entirely critical of the event without admitting that I am a huge fan of Pearl Jam. Beyonce was not all that exciting for me, but Pearl Jam was a highlight for this fanboy. While I may deride the power of celebrity and musicians, I should also admit my own failings. Pearl Jam were a weak spot for me. Ironically, the only video I can share from the performance happens to be Eddie Vedder singing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song with Beyonce.

Disclosure: Global Citizen is a sponsor of DAWNS Digest, a daily newsletter I produce with Mark Goldberg, managing editor of the U.N. Dispatch.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]