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How Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans Started a Movement

The humanitarian activist on influencing international policy, sensitizing the youth, and his India connection

Anurag Tagat Nov 16, 2016
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Actor Hugh Jackman and co-Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Hugh Evans (right) attend the 2016 Global Citizen Festival In New York in September this year. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Actor Hugh Jackman and co-Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Hugh Evans (right) attend the 2016 Global Citizen Festival In New York in September this year. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen

We’ve all heard it before – an idealistic, well-settled young man with a dream of changing the world visits “developing” countries and becomes even more ambitious in his pursuits. But what makes Hugh Evans different is that his work in the humanitarian and charity field gained the attention of everyone from his native Australian government to the United Nations. 

What started for him with his youth organization at 18, the Oaktree Foundation in Melbourne that provided aid to Asia Pacific and African countries, led to creating the co-create the non-profit Global Poverty Project in 2008, when he was 25 years old. Along the way gigs to raise awareness were always part of Evans’ inventory. 

A few years prior to setting up the Global Poverty Project – now renamed as Global Citizen – Evans was the co-chair of the Make Poverty History campaign in Australia. A worldwide movement that included charity gigs headlined by the likes of U2 and Pearl Jam, but one that was criticized as not being entirely impactful. Evans, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014, said that in hindsight,politicians had been largely two-faced about their policy decisions. 

Evans and community education expert Simon Moss co-founded GPP in New York with help from the U.N. as well as the Australian government. In 2012, Evans set teamed with Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, Universal Music Group Executive Vice President (U.S.recorded music) Michele Anthony and others for the first Global Citizen Festival in New York City, hosting everyone from Metallica to Rihanna to Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé

Now, after taking the Global Citizen Festival to countries such as Canada and hosting events in Germany and the U.K., India stands to witness one big party with the headline performances by UK rockers Coldplay, American rap legend Jay Z, American pop singer Demi Lovato and more. 

For Evans, however, it’s a chance to give back to the country that was once home for him, when he studied at the Woodstock School in Mussoorie in 1998. In an exclusive chat with ROLLING STONE India, Evans talks about his upbringing, experiences traveling and living in cities such as Manila and how the new generation has innovation and motivation on their side. 

When you began to travel outside Australia for development programs in your early teens, did you see a situation in those countries that could be helped or did the world’s problems feel irreversible back then? 

I spent many years as a teenager and in my early 20s working on community development projects, working to fight HIV/AIDS, building schools, training teachers. But over time I came to see that community development had to be driven by communities themselves. Although charity is necessary, it is not sufficient. I learned that we needed to confront these challenges on a global scale, and in a systemic way. I learned the best thing I could do was try and mobilize a large group of citizens to insist that our leaders engage in that systemic change. Over time, I’ve only become more optimistic about what we can achieve, not less – and the good news, extreme poverty has halved over my life, not a lot of people realise this but things are getting better, not worse. 

Tell me a bit about your time in Manila – you’ve spoken about it in previous interviews – but how do you look back on it? 

It was 1998 when I had the chance to go to the Philippines after being involved in a country-wide fundraising effort back in Australia. We were taken to a community in the outskirts of Manila and I was placed in the care of a family. Their son, Sonny Boy was my age and the community worked in and around what was literally a pile of steaming garbage called Smokey Mountain – it was a rancid landfill that kids spent hours every day rummaging through to find anything of value. It was that night that I spent with Sonny Boy and his family that would change my life forever. I found myself confronted with the question, why should Sonny Boy’s ability to live out his dreams be determined by where he was born? That moment in Manila was the catalyst that made me dedicate my life to fighting the status quo of extreme poverty. 

Have you gone back to Manila after that? 

I have been back once but I met Sonny Boy in 1998 in the days before social media and I sadly lost contact with the friends I made when I was there as a teenager. 

Similarly, studying in India and seeing the country when you were so young, how do you look back on your time there? 

My time in India left me with nothing but fond and inspiring memories. I built great friendships at the school I attended – Woodstock – and I am still in touch with many of the educators there today. It is incredibly exciting to be back in India 17 years after the first time I stepped off the plane in Delhi and to be here to help water, sanitation, education efforts through the Global Citizen movement. I can’t understate the sheer amount of progress that Indian leadership has undertaken. The whole country tells the story of opportunity and progress. What we see in India today is a credit to Indian leadership and entrepreneurship. 

Do you think youth today have that compassion towards the world that will make them devote themselves to long-term, large-scale goals like you have? 

I absolutely have confidence that young people will continue to be the great change agents in the fight against extreme poverty. People often talk about millennials as being apathetic and unmotivated. Just look at some of the innovations that have literally changed how we live our lives – Facebook, Uber, Airbnb – completely revolutionizing the way we live and interact as human beings. It’s exciting to think what this same generation can achieve with the right tools and motivation. 

How does something like Global Citizen Festival bring in an audience that cares but without making yourselves look too preachy to crowds that just, at the end of the day, probably want to enjoy their favorite music? 

Research data tells us that of the population who care about global issues, only around 18 percent have done anything about them.  It’s not that they don’t want to, more often it’s that they don’t know how to. Or because they believe they can have no effect. 

With Global Citizen, we had to somehow recruit and activate millions of people in dozens of countries to demand that their leaders begin acting on behalf of all of humanity. Extreme poverty isn’t the only problem that is fundamentally global – so too are human rights, climate change, gender equality, conflict. We have over eight million members currently and in building our organization around the world we have found ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are passionate about tackling these inter-related issues. We use the universal language of music to unite people. Along the journey that someone takes to earn their free tickets to the Festival in New York and now in Mumbai – and at events we have held in cities like London, Washington D.C. and Montreal – we find that they get passionate about issues, they find in themselves an activist where they did not realise there was one.

How did the idea of setting up Global Citizen in India come about?

Global Citizen as an organization has been very passionate about India. We’ve been following the rise of India for some time. 

Our whole goal was to see if we can partner with people in India to build a lasting movement of citizens who are committed to seeing an end to extreme poverty and an achievement of one of the global goals for sustainable development. We were very fortunate a few years ago when Prime Minister Modi came on stage at the Global Citizen Festival in New York and then after that, we brought Chris Martin from Coldplay to Delhi to meet with the Prime Minister about a year and a half ago and we started working intensively on bringing Global Citizen to India. 

We partnered with a great local organization called The Global Education and Leadership Foundation, called TGELF. They were founded by Shiv Khemka. We partnered with Shiv and Gouri, Jai and their whole team and we’ve been working intensely with them and Wizcraft and so many others over the last year to try to bring this into being. 

I read in the announcement that this was a 15-year-long initiative? 

PM Modi has championed the Swachch Bharat (Clean India) program and with that there’s been a lot of focus around water and sanitation. There’s also the Beti Bachao campaign around educating the girl child. Our focus in India is on really on achieving sustainable development goals 4, 5 and 6. 

Last year, 193 leaders came together and they committed 17 sustainable development goals. The fourth goal is about universal access to education, the fifth one is about gender equality and empowerment for girls and the sixth one is about access to water and sanitation services. Our local partners decided that these were the most important goals for India and we followed the lead of our local partners – TGELF – all advised that these are the most important. 

People will be able to earn tickets to the Global Citizen Festival in Mumbai for free, but they have to take action. It’s the same model we use in America, Canada and Australia, where the Global Citizen Festival already exists. 

I don’t know if you saw some of the inaccurate news stories that were promoted. You have to explain to me the Indian press to me at some point. I don’t know where they get their news from. It was completely fabricated. Every global citizen show that we do, without fail, all the majority of the tickets are for free. You have to explain to me where they get their news from. It was totally made up. Someone must be making that shit up, it’s so inaccurate. I woke up and thought, ‘Oh my goodness’. 

An aerial view of Global Citizen Festival's recent edition in New York City. Photo: Courtesy of Global Citizen

An aerial view of Global Citizen Festival’s recent edition in New York City. Photo: Courtesy of Global Citizen

Does this mean that the festival will also take place every year for the next 15 years?

[laughs] I can’t tell you about that yet, but I can say I hope so. 

Ahead of the Indian edition, you’ve seen 1.8 million actions taken overall. How have these methods used to take action actually impacted change in policy

It’s brought about enormous change. Global Citizen this year, helped influence some of the most important pieces of U.S. Legislation relating to international development. For example, last year, Global Citizen worked with Congress and the U.S. Senate to pass the Water for the World Act. Just two months ago, Obama signed the Global Food Security Act into legislation as a result of hundreds of thousands. 

Similarly, if you go to Justin Trudeau’s page, you can see the actions of Global Citizens has helped raise $13 bn for HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis with the partnership and support of the Global Fund. 

UK citizens called upon their government to increase their investment into girls education and the response at our Global Citizen event in London, Green announced a $130 mninvestment into girls education. 

Whether it’s education in the UK or HIV/AIDS in Canada – all around the world, our 8 million members are having an enormous impact. And as we expand into India, we know the sheer scale of India will enable people to have more impact globally. Like, I’m staring at a chart on my wall and I can see, that right now thousands of people in India are right now taking action at this very moment. 

Our members have extraordinary impact because they work together. Acting alone, we feel like our voice doesn’t matter, but if we unite together and tackle some of the greatest social challenges, we can be enormously powerful. They do have this perfect match between pop and poverty. 

This was an initiative to include music to these causes, then? How different is the Global Citizen Festival from a regular charity gig?

We’re not a traditional charity concert. Most concerts – you pay a bit of money, you rock out and then you forget about it. Whereas the whole principle of Global Citizen is that you have to earn your way in. That’s what makes us unique. If you look at Live8 or other charity concerts across the world, they were always done to raise money. Whereas you and I know – when I was in India in 1998-99, there were 700 mn people who were homeless or slum-dwellers at that time. That was more than 20 times the population of Australia, where I’m from. No amount of charity is going to end poverty, we actually have to change the system from keeping people poor. The only way we can change those systems is through building a movement. 

Bringing it back to music, it’s always been the engine for social change. If you think about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, songs like ‘We Will Meet in Pretoria’ or the movement to end slave trade in Britain and songs like ‘Amazing Grace’. Or even in a modern day sense, if you think of some of the songs that fuelled the civil rights movement here in the United States. Or even in India, modern rap music or pop music is used to fuel social movements across the country. We believe that music is this great uniter

If you go to live.globalcitizen.org, you’ll see a representation of the globe and all these red dots. 

All those people are taking action right now. And more all around the world. The way that Global Citizen is unique is that we’re not a charity, we’re a social movement. You can see that Global Citizen has become one of the fastest growing social platforms in the world and as a social good platform, we’re about driving action and not traditional charity. That’s what makes this partnership in India so exciting.

Global Citizen Festival India takes place on November 19th, 2016 at MMRDA Grounds, Mumbai. 

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