It’s Not Just Clueless Celebs: Behind the Faux Activist NGO Producing 'The Activist'

The show’s producer Global Citizen, funded by Bill Gates, the World Bank and a who's who of multinational corporations, wants us to rely on those who drive poverty to fight poverty.

On September 10, Deadline reported on a new CBS reality show, The Activist, where apparently Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough will oversee a competition that “features six inspiring activists teamed with three high-profile public figures working together to bring meaningful change to one of three vitally important world causes: health, education, and environment.”

The announcement of the show, which will premiere on October 22, garnered an immediate and deserved online backlash. On its face, it’s a manifestly bleak idea: “activists” pitted against one another for the privilege of being bestowed money and resources by a global elite. Bum Fights with Starbucks tones. 

But the viral outrage should serve as an entry point into a discussion of a much larger and systemic problem with the slick, corporate-funded “activist” model being peddled. As Deadline notes, “The series is produced by Global Citizen—the international education and advocacy organization working to catalyze the movement to end extreme poverty that produced the recent VaxLive: A Concert to Reunite the World—CBS and Deviant Media.” The organization, given its alleged liberal and lofty goals of ending world hunger, poverty, and improving education in the global south, mostly gets a pass. But it shouldn’t. Global Citizen’s model is not about activism in any meaningful sense—it’s about deflecting and crowding out real activism and replacing it with feel-good rhetoric, PR stunts, and reputation-laundering for some of the most anti-poor forces on earth. 

Australian “humanitarian” Hugh Evans reportedly founded Global Citizen (also known as Global Poverty Project) in 2008 with $60,000 from the UN and $350,000 from the Australian government. From its origins, it wasn’t a project determined to challenge power from the outside but, rather, to adopt the language of activism to solicit funds from powerful governments, corporations, and organs of global capital like the World Bank and IMF with an explicit or implicit understanding the demands would be limited to a narrow market-friendly framework and rhetoric conciliatory in nature.   

Since then, major funders of Global Citizen through the years have included Bill Gates, the UN, the World Bank, Google, Coca-Cola, CitiBank, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and a who’s who of multinational corporations. Global Citizen—like its major benefactor Gates—claims to want to stop global poverty while propping up the major defenders of what drives it—namely, extractive global capitalism disinterested in or hostile to labor rights, environmental rights, or indigenous rights. 

Like Gates did for over two decades (until very recently), Global Citizen has mostly flown under the radar, rarely inviting criticism. One notable exception is a 2015 takedown in the Nation Magazine by Benjamin Cohen and Elliot Ross which touched on this central paradox: How can an organization that claims to champion the global poor be funded by the institutions hostile to the global poor? And what does the co-option of activism by these forces, as so cynically captured in ‘The Activist’, mean for those truly concerned for social justice?

This contradiction isn’t theoretical. Indeed, one recent life-or-death episode illustrates in stark terms how Global Citizen’s “activist” model isn’t just useless—it’s actively harmful, scooping up media attention, credulous boosting from celebrities, and money that absolutely needed to be directed elsewhere. 

Last spring there was a genuine grassroots effort on the part of hundreds of health, human rights, and social justice organizations, ranging from Human Rights Watch to Doctors Without Borders to Oxfam, to pressure the Biden administration to support a patent waiver for covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization. This emergency waiver was, and still is, supported by over 100 poor countries and would—along with necessary technology transfers—permit them to manufacture their own vaccines and speed up the time to get their populations inoculated from the virus. This was preferable to the only-COVAX model of rich countries donating vaccines because it would rapidly speed up the time of getting the global poor vaccinated. There was a surge of upward pressure from medical professionals, activists, and over a 100 Nobel laureates

But the supposed champion of poor people in the global south, Global Citizen? It was completely mum on the topic altogether, instead putting on two expensive concerts—both funded by Gates—using celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, David Letterman, Ben Affleck, and Jimmy Kimmel urging the public to donate to COVAX and other half baked charity measures. This WHO-run vaccine donation program has been criticized for being ineffective charity model that permits Big Pharma to double down on its intellectual property regimes while looking like it’s doing something for the global poor. COVAX is certainly a decent program as a supplement to patent waivers and technology transfer to the Global South but, as a stand-alone offering, it served little purpose other than serving as a distraction from the core issue.

Global Citizen made absolutely zero mention of the massive global lobbying effort aimed at the EU and U.S. to back waiving patents. No tweets, no statements, no mention at their high profile concerts. Nothing. 

Not unrelatedly, Global Citizen’s major funder, Gates, vehemently opposed any compromise of Intellectual Property regime. Both he and his foundation poured considerable resources into opposing the patent waiver route: Those on Gates’ payroll, routinely dismissed the idea. Protecting global intellectual property regimes has been one of Gates’ primary ideological projects for almost 20 years, indeed it’s how he made his fortune with global Microsoft licensing, and not even a once-in-a-hundred year pandemic was going to get in the way of this. 

Eventually, however, on the afternoon of May 5, under tremendous domestic pressure, President Biden reversed course and supported a patent waiver in principle (though the sincerity of this effort is in doubt). On cue, with eroding credibility on the subject, hours later the Gates Foundation also vaguely reversed course, coming out in favor of “a narrow waiver during the pandemic.” 

Hours after Biden backed the waiver, and after, one can assume, the Gates Foundation decided internally to follow suit, Global Citizen, for the very first time, tweeted out support for a WTO patent waiver

Organizations that follow the lead of their billionaire donors and the White House, and adopt a position after those in power nominally support it aren’t activists—they’re PR agents for those in power.  

As we detailed in an April 30 episode of Citations Needed, this was obvious at the time. That Global Citizen would corral this much media attention and celebrity star power to help get vaccines to poor countries while omitting the single biggest global effort to do just that said all one needed to know about billionaire, UN and World Bank-approved “activism.” It’s little more than controlled opposition and reputation laundering. 

And it wasn’t just Gates. Johnson & Johnson, one of LiveVax’s major sponsors, had spent considerable time and energy lobbying against a patent waiver

Global Citizen CEO Evans makes a comfortable $414,143 a year to peddle this model of “change.” Here’s a clip of Evans helping former Comcast "chief diversity officer" David Cohen do some corporate PR for Comcast, a dead-eyed, anti-labor, money-sucking corporation consistently voted “America’s most hated company.”  

But, one may say, Evans and Global Citizen push large corporations and governments to donate to the global poor. Isn’t this good? 

It’s not—it’s charity, corporate loose change to manage their brand long term. We don’t stop climate change by lobbying Exxon to increase its donations to alternative energy research from 1% to 2%: We stop climate change by opposing and weakening the reach and power of Exxon. Just the same, we cannot alleviate global poverty by begging those who drive global poverty to be slightly nicer.  And it’s not just the patent waiver where these glaring conflicts emerge. As Cohen and Ross note in their 2015 Nation piece, Global Citizen is also silent on rapacious “trade deals”:

Global Citizen also ignores both the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (which could negatively affect economies in developing countries that rely on exports and provoke damaging environmental effects, through factors such as aviation greenhouse gas emissions) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will prevent the industrialization of participating developing countries by “locking [them] into low-end agricultural and extractive industries.” Critics have called the TTIP and the TPP “thinly veiled attempts to carve out China, Brazil, India, and other emerging economies from WTO talks.” Global governance for these types of issues needs to be split equally among the world’s countries, and this should be an issue that “global citizens” are vocal about. 

Like the patent waiver issue, these environmentally destructive, anti-worker trade deals are opposed by literally hundreds of grassroots activist groups and, again, Global Citizen is on the outside looking in––out of sync with not just explicit anti-capitalists, but mainline progressives as well.

In response to criticism over The Activist, Global Citizen passed along this comment to deadline: “The Activist spotlights individuals who’ve made it their life’s work to change the world for the better, as well as the incredible and often challenging work they do on the ground in their communities. This is not a reality show to trivialize activism. On the contrary, our aim is to support activists everywhere, show the ingenuity and dedication they put into their work, and amplify their causes to an even wider audience.”

This is true if you accept the group’s premise that the point of “activism” is to directly work with the corporate and government-drivers of poverty while begging for table scraps to better manage and ameliorate the suffering caused by these same institutions. If this is how one views “activism,” then this show is probably for you. But activism without conflict is a strange form of activism, indeed. There’s poverty but no persons or institutions making anyone poor. There’s hunger but no one is hoarding resources and food. It’s not activism against anything in particular, just abstract social problems with no authors. 

In addition to the World Bank, Global Citizen has worked on these control opposition stunts with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for years, inviting IMF officials to give speeches about the perils of poverty at “rallies” ostensibly to help the global poor. But, as Cohen and Ross also note, the IMF, like the World Bank, is despised by activists in the global south. The IMF extorts poor countries with exploitative privatization schemes and structural adjustment programs that drive poverty and destroy ecosystems. 

Global Citizen lavishes these powerful institutions with “leadership” awards. Its 2020 “World leader of the year” award went to EU commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and its 2018 “World Leader of the year” award went to Conservative Party Norway PM Erna Solberg—both of whom remain fierce opponents of the TRIPS waiver. Two of the group’s four finalists last year actively worked against TRIPS at the WTO, a third was head of the IMF. Do the heads of the EU and IMF really need awards? Are they otherwise obscure and unrecognized? What is the point of these media products if not public relations for the already powerful and entrenched?

What Global Citizen does and represents matters not just because of its immediate impact, or because it’s pushing out a cynical reality show. What it does matters but because of the broader system of power-serving NGOs that it represents. There’s a reason billionaires, Western governments, and the World Bank fund and work with organizations like Global Citizen, and it’s not because their hearts bleed for the world’s poor. They do so because something has to fill the oppositional void, and it may as well be those on their side—both financially and ideologically. We live in a world of finite resources, and there’s only so much money, energy, and empathy to go around. Redirecting people’s better impulses––the impulse to work hard to better the world and help the less fortunate––into fatuous, corporate-friendly PR products comes at a cost. And that cost is what we can achieve if we, instead, actually did activism.