The 2020 Global Citizen Prize for World Leader honors President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who has not only consistently shown formidable leadership across the UN's Global Goals throughout the year, but has led with humility and empathy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The award recognizes a leader who uses their political influence to advocate for and implement policy changes that work towards improving the lives of those in poverty.
During the Global Citizen Prize award ceremony, President von der Leyen was introduced by actor and activist Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as “one of the most powerful leaders in Europe [who] more than rose to the occasion and response to COVID-19.”
“She knew a global problem needed a global response, and in Brussels amid the crisis it was business as usual,” he continued. “Challenge after challenge landed on her desk, and she took them on like a leader with a profound sense of purpose.”
“As much as a Global Citizen award is a moment of celebration — and, we’ll do that! — we cannot stop our work until we’ve overcome this pandemic & its impact.” #GCPrize World Leader winner @vonderleyen & @undp Goodwill Ambassador @nikolajcw discuss leadership during COVID-19. pic.twitter.com/VKLeZJQroh— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) December 20, 2020
And yet, as Coster-Waldau highlighted, when President von der Leyen first came to power 12 months ago, she couldn’t have known how Europe and the world would change on her watch.
“I remember very well a year ago, when I started as president of the European Commission, the world was completely different,” President von der Leyen told Coster-Waldau. “The corona crisis was unprecedented for all of us and, yes, as a medical doctor I might have had some advantages in understanding the dynamics and the challenges of the pandemic.
“But having said that, for me there is no doubt this double crisis — it is a double crisis, the health and the economic crisis of unprecedented scale — is definitely the biggest challenge in my life,” she continued. “And you can only be prepared to a certain extent to deal with a crisis like this.”
It must be mentioned that the finalists for this year’s award — also including Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel; Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima; and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva — have all displayed incredible leadership in a year laden with challenges, and all four women have led with empathy and compassion with a mission to achieve a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The decision as to the ultimate winner of the Global Citizen Prize for World Leader was made by a notable panel of over 30 judges, including former heads of states and governments, other political leaders, and champions in the development community.
Each member on the committee of judges has had an incredible political or advocacy career of their own. The panel included the likes of former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, human rights lawyer and gender equality activist Trisha Shetty, and former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd. You can read more about the judging panel and their personal achievements here.
President von der Leyen received the award this year for making significant strides in working towards achieving the United Nations’ Global Goals and making well-informed and critical decisions in an effort to alleviate poverty and the impacts that it has on society.
Stepping into her role as president of the European Commission in 2019, President von der Leyen’s first point of action was to advocate for gender equality within the European Commission, by populating her team with more women and leading the introduction of a dedicated Commissioner for Equality.
Under her leadership, the European Commission presented the New EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 earlier this year. Some of the key actions that form part of this strategy include implementing measures to improve the gender balance in management and leadership positions, and partnering with the UN on the new Spotlight Initiative, through which the European Commission contributes funding to end violence against women and girls.
President von der Leyen continues to strive for equality and has committed to creating an environment where diversity can thrive. She has also pledged to hire more people from racial minorities.
In her opening statement as President of the European Commission, she said she aimed for “Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050,” highlighting her dedication to tackling climate change.
Thanks to President von der Leyen, December 2019 saw the introduction of the European Green New Deal — a set of policy changes and initiatives that aims to make European carbon neutral by 2050. Just this month, the EU leaders also agreed to collectively cut emissions by at least 55% by 2030, on proposal of the Commission, an important step towards carbon neutrality.
In discussion with Coster-Waldau about the European Green New Deal and why it’s so important, President von der Leyen said: “Plain and simply because time is up.
“Climate change is a crisis that threatens the ability of mankind to live on this planet,” she continued. “As gloomy as the picture is, the good news is that it is up to us to bring about change and we just have to gather our courage and act bold and smart.”
As 2020 has been defined by the COVID-19 global pandemic and the impact that it has had on countries and communities, it is also essential to commend von der Leyen for the role she has played in Europe’s response to the pandemic. This included securing unprecedented financial support to help rebuild the economies of EU member states.
Throughout the crisis, she has been one of the most vocal advocates for equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines, reiterating relentlessly that no one is safe until everyone is, including most recently at the G20 summit and the Paris Peace Forum. President von der Leyen is herself a doctor by training.
This is also why the European Commission agreed to co-launch with the World Health Organization the Coronavirus Global Response, the first online pledging conference for the global fight against COVID-19, which saw $7.4 billion pledged to develop affordable COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.
When asked by Coster-Waldau what lessons she has learned from the pandemic, President von der Leyen said: “It’s very simple — the lesson I have learned is, unity pays off.
“We’ve learned, for example, here in Europe that when we join forces we get better at containing the virus, this saves lives,” she said. “And it’s a simple lesson but it’s the most important lesson we’ve learned.”
In her continued response to the pandemic, the European Commission also teamed up with Global Citizen earlier this year for the "Global Goal: Unite for Our Future" campaign which mobilized more than $1.5 billion in new grants and $5.4 billion in loans and guarantees, for a total of $6.8 billion pledged to support the world’s most vulnerable through COVID-19, not even two months after the first pledging conference.
As a true leader, President von der Leyen won't give up the fight against COVID-19 until the pandemic is over. She has already announced that next year, she will team up with Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, as part of the G20 presidency, and co-host a Global Health Summit, which will help end the current pandemic, but also prevent and prepare for future pandemics too.
And as she told Coster-Waldau: “You have my word that Team Europe stays on the ball. Because, as much as the Global Citizen award is a moment to celebrate — and we will do that — we cannot stop with our work until we have overcome this pandemic and its impact.”
The Global Citizen Prize for World Leader has previously been presented to Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, at last year’s Global Citizen Prize ceremony at London’s Royal Albert Hall; while in 2018, at Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100, held at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium, the award went to Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
President von der Leyen is the third woman in a row to be honored with the prize, a testament to the growing power of women’s leadership globally.
The Global Citizen Prize award ceremony is being broadcast and streamed around the world from Dec. 19 — you can find out how to tune in and watch wherever you are, here.
Join Global Citizen in December 2020 to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize and how to watch here.