Humanity is being tested by various crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic and an exploding hunger crisis to the escalating impacts of climate change and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But far from resigning to a state of despair, the present moment’s challenges call for a bold sense of urgency to guide us to a better tomorrow, according to a panel discussion at the inaugural thought leadership summit Global Citizen NOW on Sunday at Spring Studios in New York City.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen joined Cisco Chair & CEO Chuck Robbins and Global Citizen’s co-founder and CEO Hugh Evans as part of “The Urgency of Now” talk, moderated by Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski.
The panel explored the ways in which the public and private sector must work together to create nimble and flexible frameworks for action when partnering to respond to overlapping crises.
For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Global Citizen had to shift its focus to raising funds for personal protective equipment and vaccine availability and built connections with governmental and corporate leaders and the artist community to facilitate these new goals. Global Citizen’s One World: Together At Home concert mobilized $127.9 million in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Von der Leyen warned that the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the global food crisis are the most urgent concerns the world currently faces.
Globally, more than 276 million people face severe hunger, and this number could nearly double as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has threatened food production in two of the most significant crop exporters in the world.
“The next crisis of food security is coming,” Evans said. “And if we care about the mission of helping the most vulnerable people on our planet, the fact is that people across the Middle East and parts of sub-Saharan Africa soon will not have enough grain not just to support their own food security, but for their agricultural food security. And so this is a huge looming challenge as Russia continues to bomb warehouses and block wheat from leaving ports. We have to jump onto this right away.”
Ensuring that communities facing hunger receive enough food in the months and years ahead lies primarily with governments that can mobilize domestic and international aid, but the private sector has a significant role to play as well.
The European Union, heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, has accelerated its transition away from fossil fuels to deprive Putin’s regime of an essential source of revenue.
“Putin would have never, ever thought that he is accelerating the green transition, the European green deal towards a zero emission economy,” von der Leyen said.
Meanwhile Cisco, a Global Citizen partner, responded quickly to the invasion by stopping all business in Russia and Belarus and set up wireless access in refugee camps. This kind of cooperation has been apparent in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well, during which companies like Cisco have helped to create a greater sense of social responsibility within the business community, Robbins said.
“It's incumbent upon the business community to do a better job of roping in our peers,” he said. “And we've been trying and we've had some level of success. During the pandemic, we led and we had conference call after conference call raising money, buying PPE, doing all those kinds of things.
“We might be able to give $20 million and someone else might only be able to give $100,000,” he added. “But any time you're talking about charity, every bit helps, right?”
Global Citizen often acts as a bridge between the public and private sector.
“We're an NGO,” Evans said. “We mobilize young people all around the world. Chuck's the CEO of a huge, huge organization. President von der Leyen oversees all of the European Commission. We have to build bridges and work together super quickly.”
World leaders must generate the same sense of urgency for the climate crisis, Evans said, which threatens the well-being of billions of people worldwide. The private sector can help drive the effort and he urged corporate America and the European Round Table of Industrialists to follow Cisco’s lead and commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 and 2050.
“If you add up all of the world's foreign aid, that is the entire foreign aid budget of every wealthy nation combined, we would have to spend that foreign aid budget again and again and again and again for 100 years just to match [the amount spent on] pandemic relief,” he said. “That's $17 trillion.”
He added: "We can mobilize political will. We just need to frame the issues, the most urgent issues, whether it's climate change or extreme poverty, with that same degree of political urgency and create the space for society to go on that journey and address these issues head on.”
Global Citizen NOW is a two-day urgent gathering to defeat poverty and proect the planet, bringing together more than 200 speakers from advocacy, activism, philanthropy, journalism, politics, science, and pop culture. The summit includes keynotes, fireside conversations, and panel discussions that delved into everything from innovations in carbon reduction to ways to empower vulnerable adolescent girls and young women. The summit also aims to plant the seeds for long-term action and grassroots mobilization and served as a springboard for the winners of this year’s Global Citizen Prize.
Evans ended the session by discussing the concept of global citizenship.
“My final call to action is never allow the injustices of the world to become anything less than urgent,” he said. “Because for those people who are working every day just to survive, it is the urgency of their entire life. And so my ask for all of you is fight for it like it was your own life. Fight for these issues like it was actually your life at stake. Not someone else's life, not someone abstract on the other side of the world, but your life.
"Because if you are fighting for your life, damn, you would fight so hard. So fight with that degree of urgency as we work to fight these injustices over the coming years, so that we actually can see an end of extreme poverty within our lifetime.”