Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of Oxfam. He has lived and worked in four continents and 10 cities including New Delhi and Washington DC, as well as with children in poverty in East London. 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 posts on this blog are personal reflections.

Inequality and the dangerous radicals

As is well-known, critiquing the market can lead to dangerous radicalism, and I’ve recently come across some particularly troubling examples of such radicals.

One proposes that the state should impose on employers an increase in the income of its lowest paid staff. He claims: “It is a serious national evil that any class of subjects should receive less than a living wage.” Without such interference, he claims, “where you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad by the worst — this is not progress, but progressive degeneration.”

Another takes aim the banks, claiming “banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies. Already they have set up a monied aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power of the banks should be taken away from them and restored to the people to whom it belongs.”

And it’s not just banks and sweatshops they are attacking, with rich-bashing reaching its heights with this attack: “The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, or to despise, or at least to neglect, the poor, is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

It may be a relief that these three are old history now – indeed you may have recognised them as, respectively, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith.

But it’s not all in the distant past. In my own lifetime I find an American President claiming “Trickle-down economics is voodoo economics” and a Pope claiming:

“There are many human needs which find no place on the market. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great poverty. There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”

You’ll recognise from their quotes that the dangerously radical President and Pope cited above are, of course, George H W Bush and John Paul II. (I mean, who else could you have been thinking of?)

And now to the present moment, where such radical critiques of the primacy of the market are growing even louder.

“The current level of income inequality,” claims one, “is dampening economic growth, and the last generation’s inequality will extend into the next generation, with diminished social mobility. Rebalancing —along with spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure —could help bring under control an income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.”

That was – you’ve guessed it, Wall Street ratings agency S&P.

And this rabble rouser goes even further: “Inequality is destabilizing, inequality is responsible for our divisions, and the divisions could get wider,” says Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

Strange that such ideas have been endorsed by such apparently establishment thinkers. It’s almost as if the ideas being expressed were perfectly mainstream and sensible! The only question left to ask is what should we do with such dangerous radicals as those cited above? One suggestion, just a suggestion, might be that we heed their warnings.

With Glasgow Govan’s gentle hard men

In Govan, one of Glasgow’s toughest post-industrial neighbourhoods, a big burly man with a tattoo, a history of drug abuse, huge arms and a large hammer, stops a posh English chap, dressed in a suit and just out of a board meeting. “I remember when I was being chased with a hammer,” he tells me, “and now here I am using a hammer to make this beautiful wooden boat.” He hands me some wood shavings: “Smell that, it’s Douglas Fir, doesn’t it smell gorgeous? They use it in Potpourri.”

Glasgow Govan is a place with a difficult present, but also a proud history. “Govan,” another of the men tells me, “was the great home of shipbuilding and production. Some say the name comes from a Viking word for the God of the Blacksmiths.” The people of Govan have links to the history of Scotland’s islands and to Gaelic and Norse mythology – all of which the participants of the GalGael project draw upon as inspiration for the artifacts they produce and as a way to understand their own personal histories and the next chapters of their lives.

The collapse of industry and the onset of mass unemployment tore into the heart of Govan and wrecked many lives. GalGael is a grassroots attempt to heal the wound and to demonstrate a living alternative.

“I’m so happy to have something to do,” I am told repeatedly by the participants. Politicians critical of civil society sometimes claim that they don’t give enough value to work – but enabling people to work is in fact central to the model of locally-driven projects like this, precisely because it is so core to people’s identity and broader health. “Hard graft beats therapy any day,” says one.

The work being carried out here is tough and physical, but is also individual and beautiful. Men who have been told that they are nothing find work here that is “much more than wage labour – I’ve made some things that make me feel proud. I feel talented. I’ve seen that I’m capable.”

There is no division here between the helpers and the helped. Many of the trainers are people who arrived as participants – and those involved see the most crucial support as from their peers. “We’ve all been through the same things.”

“I’m so thankful,” says another gentle giant.

“What are you most thankful for?” I ask. I expect him to say for the people who run GalGael, but what he says is an even greater tribute. “That all of us here have each other.”

The Unquiet: Challenging Inequality in Pakistan

They were brought up to be quiet. But they insist upon raising their voice. At a gathering in Lahore of women grassroots activists from different parts of rural and small town Pakistan, they meet to discuss what they have been doing to challenge the worst inequalities and hold government to account in their communities. To learn from each other they take it in turns to share their stories.

“I am a school teacher, and my school didn’t have a boundary wall, or a toilet. So I met with the local government official and said that it needed to be fixed. He said there were no funds. I said that I would find that out using the Right to Information Act. He organised for the wall and the toilet.”

“When a man murdered some young girls the police did nothing to arrest him. So I went to see the police to complain. The murderer’s family went to visit my brother to put pressure on me to stop pushing. But my brother supported me. I stood firm. Then six days later the police arrested the killer.”

“I organised for the women in my village to get ID cards – we could not get them because our marriages were not being recognised as Hindus. It can be difficult to be a Hindu, even harder to be low caste Hindu. We are called untouchable. But I don’t care what they say. I am not afraid.”

“That’s right. If the authorities think we are weak and innocent they ignore us. But if they see that we know our rights, that we are strong, then they act.”

“In my village there is a piece of land on which some very poor families have been farming for many years. But the government wanted to sell the land from under them. We organised a protest and the local media came. The families were weeping. I went inside to meet the official and urged him to stop the land sale. He asked why. I told him he was a public servant and his salary was paid for by these families’ taxes. He laughed and said they pay no taxes, they are too poor. I said every time they buy something they are paying taxes. Even when they buy a match box they must pay tax on it. He told me that even if he wanted to stop the sale he could not. But I knew the rules and I told him he could postpone the sale and write to the higher ups recommending that the families be allowed to stay. We went outside together and he announced to the media that the sale had been postponed. The families still live on that land.”

So much is being written about what is wrong in Pakistan. And much more could be written. From feudal land ownership, to underinvestment in health and education, to tax dodging by the rich, to endemic violence against women. And now a war. But that is not the only story.

“These small-small things we are changing,” explains one of the women. They are an unlikely grouping: they speak different languages, have different religions, come from different backgrounds. “You see this lady,” says one of her friend as she holds her hand, “she is a landlord’s daughter, not like the rest of us who are poor, but she is one of us now.” Her friend smiles: “And we are getting stronger, because we have learnt. And because we have each other.”

The great 18th century British anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was once asked why he kept on fighting for what seemed to so many to be an unwinnable cause. “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible,” he replied, “so we will do them anyway.”

Because I am their neighbour. A day at the Kingston Food Bank.

In Kingston, South-West London, amongst leafy streets and upmarket cafes, a group of volunteers meets in a church to welcome locals who have been referred by government or by other charities for food aid.

One man who has been referred for assitance used to be a night guard but is now recovering from 6 months of treatment for throat cancer that left him with only 60% of his tongue, and so is struggling to find work. “And before you ask, I never smoked. Not once. It’s hereditary.” He wants to make sure that I do not blame him for his cancer. “My Dad’s been treated for cancer too,” I share. His response floors me: “Well, to you and your father let me say this: Positive Mental Thinking, Positive Mental Thinking. It will be OK.” And I realise that he is counselling me. A volunteer brings tea. “Thank you so much,” he says to the volunteer, “that’s wonderful.” We run through a list of items he is entitled to. “Spaghetti?” “Yes please.” “Coffee/Tea?” “Can I choose? In which case, coffee.”  “What’s your favourite food?”, I ask. “Chinese. I’m just a couple of weeks out of treatment now but I’ve got the all clear and I’m gonna get a job. And then I’m gonna buy a Chinese takeaway meal. Positive Mental Thinking.”

Another man tells me of his gratitude to the Job Centre official who got a mistake corrected and a three month deduction cancelled. He’s looking forward to tomorrow’s football competition he is taking his son to. “It’s expensive,.£3, but another parent will drive us. People are very kind.”

I ask the volunteers what kind of people are referred in. “Oh, we’ve had people who are in work but don’t earn enough, we’ve had people who’ve been ill, people who have had a mistake made on their benefits, we had someone who had been well-to-do but lost his job, we get quite a few ex-soldiers, too, they find it hard.”

Is it tough volunteering here, I ask? “Yeah, it can be, when the people are crying. One man howled, I’d never heard a man howl before. He was at rock bottom. I stayed with him for two hours. It’s about more than the food. It’s about listening. Showing people that they matter. We have to help wherever there is need. That’s what we are commissioned for.” The confused look on my face shows at her use of the word commissioning. For these are volunteers, not contractors. “I mean our great commission.” She is talking of a higher authority than government.

The church partners with the local mosque and donations are pooled. People of all faiths and none serve together.

“How long would you be able to last without any job?” one volunteer asks me. I think about it. “Wow. One month. I’d only last one month.” “Yeah, that’s it, you see, it could be you.” If it is ever me, I will want to go see the volunteers of the Kingston Food Bank. Not just for the food. But because they will not judge, just help. Because I am their neighbour.

 

 

Climate Change is not a debate: It is a struggle that pits survivors against fossil fuel profiteers

SOUTH AFRICA COP17 CLIMATE CHANGE CONFERENCE

Climate change is not a debate.  The scientists couldn’t be clearer about how real and how harmful it is. But governments are still not basing their commitments on what is needed, and fossil fuel companies remain confidently fossilised in their economic outlook and plan.

So why haven’t the facts haven’t driven the policy? In part, it’s the collective action problem. But let’s not be naive: there are billionaires getting richer and richer from fossil fuels. For them, the collective failure to responsibly manage fossil fuel reserves isn’t a failure at all, it’s a hugely profitable success.

Climate change is impossible to make sense of as a debate, precisely because it is not a debate. It’s a struggle.

As has been said of “failed states”, you can only understand them if you understand who is doing well out of the so-called failure.  The same is true of “failed global politics”: The broken-down Warsaw talks sponsored by the coal industry were a huge success for the sponsors. Don’t assume that politicians who second-guess scientists are being stupid – look at their donors, and you’ll find many of them are being very clever. Likewise the “sceptical” think tankers paid for from oil tankers. In successfully ensuring a recurring “not yet” to any decent plan to tackle climate change, the fossil fuel lobby make the tobacco industry look like amateurs. As Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman puts it, “fossil fuel money is drowning democracy”.

The fossil fuel lobby is determined to hold out. But they are beatable. We’ve seen them make one tactical retreat already. Those who didn’t want climate change to get in the way of their irresponsibility used to say that climate was a myth; now they are starting to say it’s inevitable. It’s a shameless pivot from denialism to fatalism, of course, a clever move that will buy the fossil fuel lobby more time. (And time is money.) But that they have been forced to pivot is an indication of weakness, a chink in the armour.

The fossil fuel lobby is weakened too by the growing movement pushing for other parts of business to separate themselves from, and start to take on, the fossil fuel lobby: we’ve seen the wiser parts of the finance industry start to connect the sustainability of their investments with the sustainability of the climate, and to recognise the risks inherent in betting on unlimited carbon use; and we’ve seen the wiser parts of the food industry – an industry which both contributes to and suffers from climate change – start to look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and protect the agricultural and water resources on which they depend. As they start to shift, the fossil fuel lobby will become ever more isolated.

But what most threatens the fossil fuel lobby is the power of survivors as campaigners. Of course, this is not the first time that affected people have spoken out about climate change, but one of the consequences of climate change is that the numbers of the affected grows ever larger. The raw, brutal, damage to people wrought by climate change has been a spur for re-energised powerful grassroots activism, driven by experience, by groups ranging from Nicaraguan coffee growers to Manilla slum dwellers. Communities hit by extreme weather in countries like the UK and US are getting more organised too. And increasingly the governments of the poorest countries are speaking on behalf of their people. Diplomats have stopped being diplomatic. The ecological has become personal. This movement of the affected is still inchoate, but it is the most important force for action on climate change. Just as people affected by HIV took on the pharmaceutical industry (and, ultimately, and with great sacrifice, won), so too the people most affected by climate are taking on the power of the fossil fuel lobby. They are making it clear that this is a struggle between interests. And they are calling upon others to choose a side.

On ending the war and building the peace in Colombia

The flowers adorning the green hills of Cauca in Colombia made me think of paradise. But, unsure whether that would translate culturally, I remarked merely that the place was beautiful. I should have stuck with paradise. Yes, our indigenous hosts replied, it is beautiful, it’s our sacred mountain.

The first peoples of Colombia have struggled to hold on to their land and to their identity. “We are seen as being in the way, we are seen as an obstacle to development. We were already pushed aside, but then the big landowners decided that they wanted more. They took our land, and no one was there to help us. We took it back, in the only way we knew, by re-entering the land and refusing to leave. We were beaten. Many were killed. But to us to be without land is anyway to be dead.”

“If you had the world’s most intelligent computer,” one activist remarked to me, “and you asked it to design the worst agrarian system possible, it would flash up in bright lights the word ‘Colombia’.”

Those who live off the land – not only the indigenous but the campesino peasants too – have been squeezed: by landgrabbing, by a state apparatus that was placed at the service of the big landowners, and most recently by “free trade” agreements with North America which are bankrupting family farms.

“They do not want us to grow food – they want us to buy it from abroad with the money that we are supposed to make from mining and the big biofuel plantations. But of course that money never comes to us.”

Colombia ranks as one the world’s most unequal countries. Many say that it is not so much that Colombia has a handful of ultra-rich families as that a handful of ultra-rich families have Colombia. Rural people describe a lack of empathy amongst the urban elites: “We live in different universes. They do not see us as the same as them.”

It was in the context of this brutal inequality and exclusion that the conflict began – a conflict that has raged for 50 or 500 years depending on who you talk to. The advent of peace talks between the Government and the FARC is welcomed by community workers, but they also ask that the voices of those who have suffered most are heard. “Two men with guns are now talking. That’s better than when they were shooting. But we who never held a gun but absorbed the bullets have not been asked what we think.”

A comprehensive and lasting peace is more than a deal between two parties to the conflict.  “I lost my son,” a mother from a Bogota slum told me, “he was taken because soldiers were promised a reward for each guerrilla killed, and when they couldn’t find a guerrilla they killed my son instead. I’m not looking for punishment. I’m looking for truth, for acknowledgement, for accountability, for action to ensure that it cannot happen again to another mother.”

“Why did the war begin?”, explained an academic and activist, “Because of inequality. Because the land was taken. Because the farmers had no hope. Now a peace deal may be reached, but unless the causes of the conflict are addressed it will happen again.”

Colombia is at a historic moment, not just because of the talks between the Government and the FARC, but because people are demanding more. Urban residents have come out on to the streets in support of peasant farmers who blocked the roads. Movements of indigenous, afro-descendant, and rural and urban majority communities are making common cause. “Peace needs justice,” as one activist put it, “I don’t mean imprisonment. I mean justice.”

___

Link: Interview (Spanish) with Contagio Radio, Bogota

 

Why the struggle against inequality is a transformational campaign we can win

There are three types of campaigns: the lost causes, the just a little bits, and the transformational.

The lost causes can be great to begin with – the nobility of defeat, the pride in being proved right that things would get worse, the Butch-Cassidy-and-the-Sundance-Kid-final-scene moments. But that can get draining. Which can lead campaigners to the second type.

The just a little bits are calls for changes that don’t really challenge the powerful, but do measurably lessen the suffering of the poorest. The just a little bits bring “quick wins” a-plenty (so good for people who can’t deal with defeat), and bring praise from the establishment (so good for people who need affirmation). And they do help improve lives. But they don’t tackle the causes of poverty and suffering.

The transformational campaigns are those for fundamental shifts which change power relations: the end of slavery; the beginning of democracy; women’s rights; anti-colonialism; anti-Apartheid; drop the debt. Unlike the lost causes, they are winnable – not quickly, not easily, but winnable. And unlike the just a little bits, when they are won they really do change the world.

The struggle against inequality is a transformational campaign we can win. Those worried that no global leader would ever champion the cause can now be reassured to see as our champions President Obama (and Bill Clinton), along with the Pope (and the Archbishop of Canterbury), and the new leaders of New York (and New Delhi). (We’ve also got as champions the really clever economists; the moderately clever ones not yet, but they’ll catch up.) Those worried it was too much for the public can see opinion polls by Pew and others that show overwhelming majorities agreeing that the gap between the richest and the rest has become too wide.

Those worried that it would upset the super-rich … well, they were right. Some of them won’t get it and never will. It’s called Affluenza. It led a rich businessman to threaten to cancel his donations to the church if the Pope didn’t pipe down with all the stuff about social justice. But, encouragingly, even some of the richest get it.  As the wonderfully named hedge funder Bill Gross ($2.2bn) puts it in a letter to his peers:

“Admit that you, and I and others in the magnificent “1%” grew up in a gilded age of credit. Yes I know many of you money people worked hard as did I. A fair economic system should always allow for an opportunity to succeed. Congratulations. Smoke that cigar, enjoy that Chateau Lafite 1989. But (mostly you guys) acknowledge your good fortune. You did not create that wave. You rode it. And now it’s time to share some of your good fortune by paying higher taxes or reforming them to favor economic growth and labor, as opposed to corporate profits and individual gazillions.”

Meanwhile our opponents, the defenders of inequality, are all over the place in their response. Some deny that inequality is getting wider. Some admit that it is widening but deny that’s a problem. Some admit it is widening and admit it’s a problem but claim that the way to reduce it is to further roll out all the policies that have made things worse. And then when they have nothing left they call us Communists.

But the struggle against inequality isn’t a claim that it is possible or desirable for every person to earn the exact same income. No, it’s an insistence that every person is precious, that we need each other, and that in a decent society the gap between the richest and the rest is contained. For three decades after the Second World War, that was the global and bipartisan consensus. It can become again.

We’ve got powerful global champions, and public backing, for the strong clear message that inequality has gotten out of hand. There are, of course, powerful and well-resourced forces determined to further increase inequality. But it is not a thing we need the serenity to accept, it’s a thing we need the courage to change.