I want to introduce you to an amazing woman. Her name is Davinia. Davinia was born in Jamaica, emigrated to the US at the age of 18, and now lives just outside of Washington, DC. She's not a high-powered political staffer, nor a lobbyist. She'd probably tell you she's quite unremarkable, but she's having the most remarkable impact. What's incredible about Davinia is that she's willing to spend time every single week focused on people who are not her: people not her in her neighborhood, her state, nor even in her country — people she'd likely never meet.
Davinia's impact started a few years ago when she reached out to all of her friends on Facebook, and asked them to donate their pennies so she could fund girls' education. She wasn't expecting a huge response, but 700,000 pennies later, she's now sent over 120 girls to school. When we spoke last week, she told me she's become a little infamous at the local bank every time she rocks up with a shopping cart full of pennies.
Now — Davinia is not alone. Far from it. She's part of a growing movement. And there's a name for people like Davinia: global citizens. A global citizen is someone who self-identifies first and foremost not as a member of a state, a tribe or a nation, but as a member of the human race, and someone who is prepared to act on that belief, to tackle our world's greatest challenges. Our work is focused on finding, supporting and activating global citizens. They exist in every country and among every demographic.
I want to make the case to you today that the world's future depends on global citizens. I'm convinced that if we had more global citizens active in our world, then every single one of the major challenges we face — from poverty, climate change, gender inequality — these issues become solvable. They are ultimately global issues, and they can ultimately only be solved by global citizens demanding global solutions from their leaders.
Now, some people's immediate reaction to this idea is that it's either a bit utopian or even threatening. So I'd like to share with you a little of my story today, how I ended up here, how it connects with Davinia and, hopefully, with you.
Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, I was one of those seriously irritating little kids that never, ever stopped asking, "Why?" You might have been one yourself. I used to ask my mum the most annoying questions. I'd ask her questions like, "Mum, why I can't I dress up and play with puppets all day?" "Why do you want fries with that?" "What is a shrimp, and why do we have to keep throwing them on the barbie?"
"And mum — this haircut. Why?"
The worst haircut, I think. Still terrible.
As a "why" kid, I thought I could change the world, and it was impossible to convince me otherwise. And when I was 12 and in my first year of high school, I started raising money for communities in the developing world. We were a really enthusiastic group of kids, and we raised more money than any other school in Australia. And so I was awarded the chance to go to the Philippines to learn more. It was 1998. We were taken into a slum in the outskirts of Manila. It was there I became friends with Sonny Boy, who lived on what was literally a pile of steaming garbage. "Smoky Mountain" was what they called it. But don't let the romance of that name fool you, because it was nothing more than a rancid landfill that kids like Sonny Boy spent hours rummaging through every single day to find something, anything of value.
That night with Sonny Boy and his family changed my life forever, because when it came time to go to sleep, we simply laid down on this concrete slab the size of half my bedroom with myself, Sonny Boy, and the rest of his family, seven of us in this long line, with the smell of rubbish all around us and cockroaches crawling all around. And I didn't sleep a wink, but I lay awake thinking to myself, "Why should anyone have to live like this when I have so much? Why should Sonny Boy's ability to live out his dreams be determined by where he's born, or what Warren Buffett called 'the ovarian lottery?'" I just didn't get it, and I needed to understand why.
Now, I only later came to understand that the poverty I'd seen in the Philippines was the result of decisions made or not made, man-made, by a succession of colonial powers and corrupt governments who had anything but the interests of Sonny Boy at heart. Sure, they didn't create Smoky Mountain, but they may as well have. And if we're to try to help kids like Sonny Boy, it wouldn't work just to try to send him a few dollars or to try to clean up the garbage dump on which he lived, because the core of the problem lay elsewhere. And as I worked on community development projects over the coming years trying to help build schools, train teachers, and tackle HIV and AIDS, I came to see that community development should be driven by communities themselves, and that although charity is necessary, it's not sufficient. We need to confront these challenges on a global scale and in a systemic way. And the best thing I could do is try to mobilize a large group of citizens back home to insist that our leaders engage in that systemic change.
That's why, a few years later, I joined with a group of college friends in bringing the Make Poverty History campaign to Australia. We had this dream of staging this small concert around the time of the G20 with local Aussie artists, and it suddenly exploded one day when we got a phone call from Bono, the Edge and Pearl Jam, who all agreed to headline our concert. I got a little bit excited that day, as you can see.
But to our amazement, the Australian government heard our collective voices, and they agreed to double investment into global health and development — an additional 6.2 billion dollars. It felt like —
It felt like this incredible validation. By rallying citizens together, we helped persuade our government to do the unthinkable, and act to fix a problem miles outside of our borders.
But here's the thing: it didn't last. See, there was a change in government, and six years later, all that new money disappeared. What did we learn? We learned that one-off spikes are not enough. We needed a sustainable movement, not one that is susceptible to the fluctuating moods of a politician or the hint of an economic downturn. And it needed to happen everywhere; otherwise, every individual government would have this built-in excuse mechanism that they couldn't possibly carry the burden of global action alone.
And so this is what we embarked upon. And as we embarked upon this challenge, we asked ourselves, how do we gain enough pressure and build a broad enough army to win these fights for the long term? We could only think of one way. We needed to somehow turn that short-term excitement of people involved with the Make Poverty History campaign into long-term passion. It had to be part of their identity. So in 2012, we cofounded an organization that had exactly that as its goal. And there was only one name for it: Global Citizen.
But this is not about any one organization. This is about citizens taking action. And research data tells us that of the total population who even care about global issues, only 18 percent have done anything about it. It's not that people don't want to act. It's often that they don't know how to take action, or that they believe that their actions will have no effect. So we had to somehow recruit and activate millions of citizens in dozens of countries to put pressure on their leaders to behave altruistically.
And as we did so, we discovered something really thrilling, that when you make global citizenship your mission, you suddenly find yourself with some extraordinary allies. See, extreme poverty isn't the only issue that's fundamentally global. So, too, is climate change, human rights, gender equality, even conflict. We found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with people who are passionate about targeting all these interrelated issues.
But how did we actually go about recruiting and engaging those global citizens? Well, we used the universal language: music. We launched the Global Citizen Festival in the heart of New York City in Central Park, and we persuaded some of the world's biggest artists to participate. We made sure that these festivals coincided with the UN General Assembly meeting, so that leaders who need to hear our voices couldn't possible ignore them.
But there was a twist: you couldn't buy a ticket. You had to earn it. You had to take action on behalf of a global cause, and only once you'd done that could you earn enough points to qualify. Activism is the currency. I had no interest in citizenship purely as some sort of feel-good thing. For me, citizenship means you have to act, and that's what we required. And amazingly, it worked. Last year, more than 155,000 citizens in the New York area alone earned enough points to qualify. Globally, we've now signed up citizens in over 150 countries around the world. And last year, we signed up more than 100,000 new members each and every week of the whole year.
See, we don't need to create global citizens from nothing. We're already everywhere. We just need to be organized and motivated to start acting. And this is where I believe we can learn a lot from Davinia, who started taking action as a global citizen back in 2012. Here's what she did. It wasn't rocket science. She started writing letters, emailing politicians' offices. She volunteered her time in her local community. That's when she got active on social media and started to collect pennies — a lot of pennies.
Now, maybe that doesn't sound like a lot to you. How will that achieve anything? Well, it achieved a lot because she wasn't alone. Her actions, alongside 142,000 other global citizens', led the US government to double their investment into Global Partnership for Education. And here's Dr. Raj Shah, the head of USAID, making that announcement. See, when thousands of global citizens find inspiration from each other, it's amazing to see their collective power. Global citizens like Davinia helped persuade the World Bank to boost their investment into water and sanitation. Here's the Bank's president Jim Kim announcing 15 billion dollars onstage at Global Citizen, and Prime Minister Modi of India affirmed his commitment to put a toilet in every household and school across India by 2019. Global citizens encouraged by the late-night host Stephen Colbert launched a Twitter invasion on Norway. Erna Solberg, the country's Prime Minister, got the message, committing to double investment into girls' education. Global citizens together with Rotarians called on the Canadian, UK, and Australian governments to boost their investment into polio eradication. They got together and committed 665 million dollars.
But despite all of this momentum, we face some huge challenges. See, you might be thinking to yourself, how can we possibly persuade world leaders to sustain a focus on global issues? Indeed, the powerful American politician Tip O'Neill once said, "All politics is local." That's what always got politicians elected: to seek, gain and hold onto power through the pursuit of local or at very best national interests.
I experienced this for the first time when I was 21 years old. I took a meeting with a then-Australian Foreign Minister who shall remain nameless —
And behind closed doors, I shared with him my passion to end extreme poverty. I said, "Minister — Australia has this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. We can do this." And he paused, looked down on me with cold, dismissive eyes, and he said, "Hugh, no one gives a funk about foreign aid." Except he didn't use the word "funk." He went on. He said we need to look after our own backyard first.
This is, I believe, outdated, even dangerous thinking. Or as my late grandfather would say, complete BS. Parochialism offers this false dichotomy because it pits the poor in one country against the poor in another. It pretends we can isolate ourselves and our nations from one another. The whole world is our backyard, and we ignore it at our peril. See, look what happened when we ignored Rwanda, when we ignore Syria, when we ignore climate change. Political leaders ought to give a "funk" because the impact of climate change and extreme poverty comes right to our shore.
Now, global citizens — they understand this. We live in a time that favors the global citizen, in an age where every single voice can be heard. See, do you remember when the Millennium Development Goals were signed back in the year 2000? The most we could do in those days was fire off a letter and wait for the next election. There was no social media. Today, billions of citizens have more tools, more access to information, more capacity to influence than ever before. Both the problems and the tools to solve them are right before us. The world has changed, and those of us who look beyond our borders are on the right side of history.
So where are we? So we run this amazing festival, we've scored some big policy wins, and citizens are signing up all over the world. But have we achieved our mission? No. We have such a long way to go.
But this is the opportunity that I see. The concept of global citizenship, self-evident in its logic but until now impractical in many ways, has coincided with this particular moment in which we are privileged to live. We, as global citizens, now have a unique opportunity to accelerate large-scale positive change around the world. So in the months and years ahead, global citizens will hold world leaders accountable to ensure that the new Global Goals for Sustainable Development are tracked and implemented. Global citizens will partner with the world's leading NGOs to end diseases like polio and malaria. Global citizens will sign up in every corner of this globe, increasing the frequency, quality and impact of their actions. These dreams are within reach. Imagine an army of millions growing into tens of millions, connected, informed, engaged and unwilling to take no for an answer.
Over all these years, I've tried to reconnect with Sonny Boy. Sadly, I've been unable to. We met long before social media, and his address has now been relocated by the authorities, as often happens with slums. I'd love to sit down with him, wherever he is, and share with him how much the time I spent on Smoky Mountain inspired me. Thanks to him and so many others, I came to understand the importance of being part of a movement of people — the kids willing to look up from their screens and out to the world, the global citizens. Global citizens who stand together, who ask the question "Why?," who reject the naysayers, and embrace the amazing possibilities of the world we share.
I'm a global citizen.