People Power – What Progress on Fighting Inequality Would Look Like

Movements overcome injustices not just by bearing witness to the wrongs of the time, but by enabling people to envision a better future. Martin Luther King described the Dream, the Promised Land, the place towards which people were marching. The Anti-Apartheid movement set out the Freedom Charter. Campaigners for debt cancellation painted a picture of a world where millions more kids would go to school. In a similar way, groups involved in the emerging and coalescing movement to tackle inequality are going beyond describing why inequality is wrong, and are articulating what progress on fighting inequality would look like. In listening to some of those discussions in Nairobi, Addis and New York, I’ve heard what amounts to a vision of transformation.

It’s clear that, for the movement against inequality, change would look like much more than just the use of the movement’s language by those whom the movement is pushing to change course. Activists are pleased that the World Bank and IMF now acknowledge that inequality has gotten out of hand and needs to be tackled. But they note that hasn’t yet noticeably shifted how they actually operate in countries. The World Bank’s confusion on school fees is still hindering access to free education for all. The IMF still promotes austerity and regressive taxes. Activists are pleased that every government (every single one) just committed at the UN meetings in New York to reduce inequality within and between countries – something that very senior leaders from very powerful countries told many of us they would never ever commit to, just weeks before they did. But they note that the number of governments seriously reducing inequality within countries can be counted on one hand – and say that the commitment to reducing inequality between countries has been undermined by rich countries blocking progress on an international body to tackle tax dodging. The movement to tackle inequality is not a campaign for nicer language – it’s a struggle for a fairer society, for shared prosperity, for a world where no one has impunity and no one is a nobody. It is a struggle for dignity.

Activists say that progress in the fight against inequality would look like governments across the world learning from, and going further than, the policies introduced by the Lula government in Brazil which redistributed income, increased social protection, increased jobs and salaries for the poor, and increased people’s access to land. Progress would look like access to free, publicly provided, health and education for all; it would look like more jobs, higher minimum wages more strongly enforced, and greater rights at work. It would look like a massive increase in people’s access to land and the enforcement of free prior and informed consent. It would look like progressive taxes, progressively spent, and a clamp down on tax dodging. It would look like action on climate change that kept temperature rises below 1.5 degrees and ensured the poorest people were compensated for the loss and damage that others have caused. It would look like proper checks on corporate power. Progress in the fight against inequality, activists emphasise, would not just mean a narrowing of the gap between the richest and the rest but also, and indivisibly, greater equality between women and men, and between racial, religious and caste groups.

Most importantly, activists are saying that progress in the fight against inequality would look like a strengthening of the power of ordinary people – more people finding support in community groups and trade unions, a stronger voice for people in decisions that affect them. This is partly because the scale of change entailed can only come about through pressure from below – it is the only way it ever has. And because any change would be either inadequately followed through, or be too easily reversible, unless people power hold governments to account. (As President Obama said in his speech to the UN, “Development is threatened by inequality: the wealthy like to keep things as they are, and have disproportionate influence.”) But it is also because inequality is ultimately a question of power – and societies are only truly more equal when power is more equal. This is not just a movement to change the rules but also to change who gets to make the rules.

It’s clear that change on this scale will be difficult, that it will take years, that it will meet resistance from the powerful. But it’s also clear that we have reason for hope. Victories are being achieved. We’ve seen glimpses of what is possible, of what progress in the fight against inequality already looks like: the successful halting of the Swedish sugar deal in Tanzania that would have left thousands of farmers landless; the mobilisation of a million farmers in Uganda against taxes on agricultural inputs; the ending of VAT on bread in Zambia; the resignation of the President of Guatemala after protests against corruption; the handing back of land illegally acquired in Cambodia; the expansion of primary education across Africa; the growing challenge to austerity in Europe; the resurgence of activism in the US led by the Black Lives Matter movement; the G77 standing together in Addis for a global tax body; developing countries insisting that compensation for loss and damage be part of the deal on climate change.

It’s clear too that all that change only happened through the building of pressure from below. Last month we saw key civil society leaders commit to this agenda. “Fulfilling our promises to eliminate extreme poverty requires everyone to tackle inequality,” declared Graca Machel, “I welcome this initiative to build a movement for a more equal world where each one of us takes responsibility.” “We will get back down to the ground, back to organising, village by village, street by street,” promised Anti-Apartheid leader Jay Naidoo. ActionAid’s Adriano Campolina recalled that “every single moment when we defeated power, we did so working together – NGOs, unions, social movements – united”. Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima declared that “the energy for tackling inequality must be driven by the 99%”. Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary pledged to strengthen partnerships to help organise informal workers and the unemployed. Leaders from faith based groups including Bernd Nilles of CIDSE and John Nduna of ACT Alliance committed to a transformational agenda to challenge inequalities. And Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation committed to tackling the root causes of inequality including by confronting privilege. The commitment to a people-powered approach from these powerful leaders can help give the growing movement against inequality vital strength and support. But even as I kept pinching myself on hearing from so many leaders in New York the rousing recognition of both the problem and the solution, I found myself feeling that I might be in the wrong place in terms of the change we need. In the middle of a formal UN meeting I opened a picture sent by a friend of the Soweto Pride March for LGBT equality – and was reminded where the most important change will come from. Later, with youth activists who had stopped a demolition of a neighbourhood in Kibera slum in Nairobi, I saw again the power that comes from grassroots mobilisation. Progress in the fight against inequality will not look like lots of international meetings – it will look like lots of local mobilisations, connected across the world.

Kenyan activist Njoki Njehu, who started in grassroots mobilisation with Wangari Maathai, and then went on lead movements challenging the World Bank in DC, talked recently with a group of campaigners about why she returned from DC to Kenya and went back to organising at the grassroots. “DC can be a great place to fight for change but you can also get lost in circles. You can have a campaign with great reports and media but will change no lives, until you start to organise and mobilise people. Don’t get lost in influencing peddling. Power for change always comes from below.”

What will progress in the fight against inequality look like? It will look like people power.

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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