The Social Good Summit was back in New York City for its annual conference, timed to coincide with the influx of speakers attending the 68th United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative. For three days, panels convened at the 92Y, with Mashable, the United Nations Foundation, Ericsson, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) serving as the presenters.
The conference was live-streamed and translated into seven languages. There were off-site meetups in 120 countries. The hashtag was “#2030NOW,” underscoring the pressing reality that current actions will translate into what we see on a global scale in 2030. The goal was to create a “global community conversation,” while expanding it beyond the traditional halls of power. Joshua Lamont from the U.N. Foundation told me, “At this event, our major role is really embedded into the conference program. Our job is to provide access to what if often considered a closed event. There are genuine people of action here today.”
There were several prevalent themes addressed. Foremost were the challenges facing women, girls, and children; how climate change is impacting the planet; the fact that a small number of countries are using the lion’s share of the world’s natural resources; the ongoing debate about what technology and social media can or can’t do to improve the world.
There was a lot to absorb, yet the event was a consistently upbeat affair. The work of under-the-radar activists was highlighted, and there was nary a climate change denier in sight.
Helen Clark, previously Prime Minister of New Zealand and currently Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, rallied the crowd stating, “We must bring everyone with us. Leave no one behind.” She observed that people want a “revolution in accountability.” Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, suggested that the “cost of inaction” was exceeding action. Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children spoke about “proving the universal through the specific.” He pointed out that frequently “people feel disempowered to make change.”
The use of personal narratives to transcend apathy was repeatedly invoked. Marianne Pearl opened the third day with the thought, “Being able to tell your own story is crucial to being able to sharing power for women.
The girls and women speakers were knockouts. Malala Yousafzai, on stage with her father, was both poised and dazzling. With the support of her father, she had begun speaking out for the rights of girls at the age of nine. Her father said, “Extremists thrive on ignorance. They are afraid of books and pens.” Malala revealed, “After being shot, weakness, fear and hopeless died.” She reflected, “If I take revenge upon the Taliban, then I am the same as them.”
Elba Velasquez Hernandez, an indigenous leader from a Mayan community, is a 16-year-old advocate for education and health in Guatemala. She is featured in the upcoming documentary ¡PODER! She said emphatically, “We have rights and we are equal to others as well.”
The examination of climate change and the environment was particularly strong. Al Gore was a key anchor. He said, “Extreme weather is happening all over the world.” He pointed to the parallels in strategy between how the tobacco industry obfuscated facts—with the disinformation coming out of the oil industry (often funded by the Koch Foundation). Climate Progress guru Joe Romm laid out the scenario of what will transpire if we don’t clean up the “coal mess.” Referencing the situation as a “moral issue,” he said, “Eventually, the full price of carbon pollution will hit your hometown.”
The topic of carbon was scrutinized. Discussed was putting a price on carbon to create accountability and consequences. Also, establishing carbon integrity—defining and making a ton of carbon uniform from country to country. Tim Wirth, Vice Chair of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund, told the audience that an American person uses twenty-five tons of carbon as compared to one ton of carbon used by a person in India.
Jody Williams also addressed energy poverty. Part of the dynamic panel, “Women Leaders Cultivating Long-term Solutions to Climate Change,” Williams reiterated that those in the North were using resources to a degree that was impacting the rest of the globe. Osprey Orielle Lake, Founder of the International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative (IWECI), discussed the interconnectivity of climate change and food security. Out of seven billion people in the world, one billion go to bed daily without food.
Top innovators from the business sector included Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group, and Steven Howard, Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA Group. Branson disputed the Republican talking point that there is a conflict between clean energy and the economy. “The science has been proven,” he said. “Now we have to move the politicians.” Seeing commerce as part of the solution, Branson suggested, “If each business adopted a problem, we could solve issues.” Howard observed drily, “We’ve been in planet deficit since 1980.” IKEA is implementing a compliance code of conduct with suppliers, setting aggressive time frames to scale company goals. Relationships are ended with those not willing to meet the terms.
The culture sector got excellent traction via the work of two artists bringing visibility to essential concerns (sidenote: Kickstarter gives more money to the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts).
Marcus Bleasdale spoke of the power of photography to bear witness. He has documented the disasters befalling African villages caught in the crosshairs of fighting, around the mines that yield the resources going into the world’s electronics. Bleasdale spoke passionately of the ramifications for the affected populations. Children forced to fight as soldiers or as workers in the mines; the use of sexual violence to intimidate; child mortality. It is part of what he termed a “Faustian bargain.” Bleasdale maintained that manufacturers must be on board and that “the responsibility is with the consumer to learn about conflict free mining resources.”
Mary Jordan, filmmaker and performance artist, discussed The Water Tank Project, which she founded. It is a public art project and campaign to bring awareness and urgency to the worldwide need for access to clean water. “Water is a human rights issues,” said Jordan, underscoring that 10,000 gallons of water are wasted by New Yorkers. She emphasized the importance of “personal change.” Her inspiration for the project emanated from her personal experience with a waterborne illness in Ethiopia, and the local women who helped her recover her health.
The vital role of mobile tech got plenty of mention, as the stat of six billion phones in a world of seven billion people and “mobile penetration” was intoned with regularity (yes, there are more mobile phones than toilets). Mobile technology has opened up venues to reach communities out of the loop, offering up “cross boundary” solutions (e.g. texting pregnant women essential medical information). Mobile, with GPS tools, is able to track women at risk for domestic violence abuse. Additionally, it is being used to get birth certificate registration for children, which then becomes a passport to protection.
As to the debate on the benefits of “clicktavism” or the impact of social media—the take away was: “Stop differentiating between online and offline and figure out how to get the job done.” As United Nations Ambassador Samantha Powers noted, “Citizens can put an issue on the map—as in Darfur.” She conveyed the story about how she had recently met with a group about the death of a Cuban activist. Afterwards, they put it out on Twitter, expanding their traction. However, the flip side Powers noted was repressive leaders learning from one another how best to crack down on civil society, from social media to on the ground. By sharing “worst practices” they achieve “strangulation by regulation.”
Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF, speaking about violence against children said, “You can’t have outrage without action.” This tied into the panels about “Bold and Effective Social Issues Campaigns,” how to move from “connection to action,” and the question, “Is Shock Value an Effective Way to Spur Social Good?” The later specifically applied to a video for End7. It was developed to bring awareness and political will to eradicating seven tropical diseases by 2020. They affect the bottom billion people in neglected communities; most are making a dollar a day. Neeraj Mistry spoke about how the outreach campaign, How to Shock a Celebrity, could have gone very wrong. Tough but powerful, it ends with a clear path to taking steps and “frictionless giving.” Fifty cents can treat and protect a child for a year; a five-dollar donation will treat ten children; a ten-dollar donation will treat twenty children. One hundred percent of the money donated goes directly to NTD treatment programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean.
I first saw the video at the summit. The images stayed with me. Seven tropical diseases were now part of my consciousness. I shared the End7 campaign on my social media platforms and made a donation. The view goal for the video is 400,000. It has been 80 percent achieved.
Variations of, “Make your voice as a communicator heard,” were part of each day’s conversation. Kathy Calvin said, “There is power in individuals.” We cannot be sure if our actions are changing the world, but I know that a small group of children will be protected from illness for a year.