NGOs get their courage back on inequality and climate (thanks to the Pope)

“I’m off to the most radical country in the Western world,” I told my colleagues, “the Vatican.” There was a time when NGO radicalism would have made our collective attendance at a Vatican meeting appear like a strange moment of conservatism. Now it seems like one of the most radical things that NGOs can do.

Among many secular NGOs with proud records of critiquing the Church (and rightly so, very rightly so, very rightly so), there’s been an outbreak of praise for the Pope. But we can’t just pat the Vatican on the head for catching up with us on economic inequality and the climate crisis – they’re overtaken us, and now its our turn to catch up. They’ve progressed, but over the past decades we’ve slipped.

“Finance, special interests and economic interests are trumping the common good so their own plans will not be affected.” Yes, Naomi Klein is here with us at the Vatican. But that’s not a quote from Naomi Klein, that’s a quote from the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si. He’s written the world’s most dangerous book, one that most NGO policy people admit they wouldn’t have gotten sign off for.

In a world where corporate power has become unaccountable, will organised civil society find the courage to challenge plutocracy? Will we speak truth to power, and speak truth about power? Even when we are pressured by governments and corporations, even when we are told to be realistic, even when the powerful few offer some of us privileged access or extra funds if we’re well-behaved?

At the Vatican we meet the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. He speaks movingly about the impact of climate change on his country. “Whole islands are being buried. We need a legal mechanism recognising Loss and Damage. We are told it is unrealistic. But if it was your country, wouldn’t you?” He tells us of a question a school girl asked him when he visited one of Tuvalu’s outer islands: “Prime Minister do I have a future?” And then he turns her question on us. A real deal on climate change would mean a yes – but business as usual will mean a deal that drowns the weak. We’ll look back and remember his speech like we recall Haile Selassie’s plea to the League of Nations in 1936.

In the run-up to the meeting of world leaders on climate change in Paris in December, there’s a risk that NGOs get stuck in the inside game and get locked into declaring a deal – any deal – as victory. A source close to the talks once told me excitedly “I think we’ll get a deal, we’ll actually get a deal.” I asked him: “Will it be a deal that will prevent massive human suffering in countries like Bangladesh?” “Ah,” he said. “That, I’m not so sure about that.” If Paris fails to deliver, we’ll be complicit unless we say so. Former Bolivia negotiator Pablo Soran is here at the Vatican: “There is no real negotiation happening in Paris. It’s the beginning, not the end. Only the truth will set us free.”

The scale of change, the transformation needed to tackle climate and inequality, will not come from gentle whispers inside corridors, but from challenging the people in power with the power of the people. Yeb Sano, the former negotiator for the Philippines, is here on behalf of a people’s pilgrimage mobilising people across the world to march to their capitals and to Paris. As an official negotiator in the talks he was seen as a troublemaker by the US and others. Out of the halls and into the streets, he’s causing even more trouble now.

This courage is infectious. I’m hearing colleagues from very mainstream civil society and church groups finally getting ready to speak out boldly on how starting to fix our unequal society and our damaged climate means taking on the power of the plutocracy, and withstanding the pressure they will put back on us. “We’ve all been thinking it,” one NGO senior leader tells me, “we’ve all been wanting to do it, wanting to say it, we just needed someone to say it first. And now that’s happened. We never expected it would be the Pope.”

And beyond all the technical discussion and analyses and debates we feel a more profound call:

Be not afraid.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76