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.

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.”

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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.

Syria’s refugees and the kindness of strangers

It was the kindness of strangers. When Aziz fled from the Syrian conflict to Lebanon, he heard about a farmer who allowed Syrian refugees to camp on his land. “How much is the rent to be on his land?”, I ask Aziz. “It’s nothing,” he tells me, “the farmer charges nothing.” The tent, made by Aziz himself from recovered tarpaulin posters from old billboard adverts, is lit by an electric light. “How do you get electricity?” “From the farmer. He let’s us use his electricity supply for free.”

Aziz cannot find work except for occasional daily labour in the nearby town. “What kind of work do you do?” “Anything. I will do anything. I will dig the earth with my bare hands if it will help me take care of my daughters.” Aziz wants desperately to return – “if it was just me, I would have tried to stay and work there.”

But for the safety of his daughters he cannot. And so he stays, reliant on the generosity of a farmer who cannot turn away one who comes in need.

Aziz is one of the lucky ones. In another settlement I meet Hadoud. Since his arrival in Lebanon from Syria he has lived in a building that was originally constructed as a chicken coop. His whole family – from his one year old daughter to his 70 year old mother – live in one room. They have to pay $100 a month rent to the owners, an amount they cannot afford. They have used up all their savings and now, they say, “we buy food with debt.” It’s getting cold in the Bekaa Valley, but they cannot afford a heater and have only blankets to keep them warm.

 Ben Phillips/Oxfam

“Do the kids go to school?”, I ask. “No,” Hadoud tells me,” we took them out. The teachers hit the kids and made them empty the trash instead of doing lessons. The teachers never made the kids from this country do that. Only the Syrian kids …” – at this point the aid worker translating for me, who is Lebanese, pauses; his eyes are wet; he regains his composure; he swallows; he continues – “They selected only the Syrian kids to be sent out of lessons to take out the trash. We could not keep them in that school.”

There are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The international aid response is chronically underfunded across the region. There is a clear need to do more to help Lebanon cope. The challenges are challenges for the international community as a whole. We might wonder how anyone could reject Hadoud’s kids from school lessons. But it is all of us, collectively, who have done so.

“Hadoud’s mother wants to give you coffee,” says my translator colleague, “but I told them no, that you have to go. They cannot afford to host you. I do not want to embarrass them.”

But then coffee comes. “They have made it anyway. They insist on welcoming us.”

We sit and drink coffee and the conversation turns to “home”. “We will go home, inshallah,” says Hadoud, “we shall go home soon. And then you must visit us there, in Syria, in Syria.”

But for now they must remain. And more arrive each day. How to manage such large scale movements of people in a volatile situation is complex, very complex. And it is one that the international community cannot expect Syria’s neighbours to handle unsupported, but must manage together. It is the humanitarian crisis of our time, a collective responsibility, and requires a collective response to match it.

But as the international community looks at how to upscale its humanitarian response, what seems less complex is the guiding principle of the family with almost nothing who offer coffee, of the farmer who leases his land for free, of the translator who cannot bring himself to say what has been said.

It is the kindness of strangers.

Business Development or Solidarity? How to help Palestinian farmers

“Palestinian olive oil was once world renowned,” says Jamil, a livelihoods expert, in the car on the way to the factory. “With 100,000 Palestinian families depending on olive production, export sales could make a significant contribution to broad-based economic development. Some NGOs talk of solidarity but solidarity is not enough to develop a viable economy. We cannot, long-term, sell basic olive oil at premium prices – look at the solidarity market in Europe, now they are in recession it is not holding up. We need people to buy Palestinian olive oil because we produce it well. We need to be good in business.”

We enter the factory and are met by the dynamic company CEO, Ziad. “I was born to sell. My father established this business, I was involved in it as a kid. We worked with multinationals so I learnt how to be a business partner with them. We were creating jobs but we were importing – I want to help my people grow by exporting. I want to be the first Palestinian multinational. Premium pricing requires both a premium product – extra virgin olive oil, not the basic oil – and premium marketing – the right label, the right colour bottle, the right brand. Palestinians used to make the best olive oil in the world. We will again.”

We travel to the meet the farmers. They proudly show their Golden Award certificate. They talk about how higher standards in growing and processing olives have enabled them to make at least 10% more from the same olive trees. The business development approach pays. Literally.

But they also talk of challenges which business development alone cannot overcome.

“Israel controls all the water. We don’t get enough water for our groves. You can easily see when a grove is Palestinian or settler by how green it is. ”

“We get stuck at checkpoints, it takes hours to get anywhere. It pushes our costs up and up. We cannot compete.”

“The Israeli separation wall was built through my olive groves. To get to my land on the other side of the wall, I have to apply each time for permission. To make space for the wall 200 of my trees were uprooted. The trees were over 300 years old.”

“The economics for Palestinians are always constrained by the politics of the situation,” says Mohammed, an NGO worker. “You cannot say we are open for business when we do not control our water supply and our roads. We need people overseas to share what is happening. Olive trees are not just a product.  We grow olive trees because if we leave the land untended it is vulnerable to confiscation. We grow olive trees because they are the symbol of our people.”

“When outsiders help,” says Reyad, a farmer, “it gives me hope that we are not alone, that people care about us. When I say thank you I do not mean only for the help with the olive processing, I mean for caring. I lost my trees, my farmland. But well, what can I expect? So it is …” He does not cry. I must not. I have no words. I hold his hand. We hug.

The women of rural India are not meek – and we do not help them when we pretend that they are

women farmers in UP

The meeting started off with a comfortable simplicity. In a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, a  group of semi-literate women greeted the visiting development professionals with garlands and tikas and food. A song was sung, the visitors were thanked. Then the subject changed to a complicated scientific assessment of fertilisers and pesticides, and the conversation became one-sided. The development professionals were completely unable to keep up.

Asked to picture in their mind a group of expert agriculturalists, few see women like these, the backbone of farming across India. India’s rural women are imagined as meek souls who accept their allotted role. It is a myth, but a powerful and harmful one.

In our discussions in Uttar Pradesh I was reminded of the determined struggle which women are conducting for equality. “We are not farmers’ wives, we are farmers.” They spoke of how their group had helped them to raise their incomes. “And guess what I got with the extra money?”, one woman asked me. I thought she would say something pious. “These anklets!” she announced proudly. Brilliant. In the development myth of the Indian and global establishment, women’s groups exist primarily to “help families through women”. And it is true that helping women helps everyone. But that narrative boxes in women’s own stories, pride and strength. Women’s empowerment is needed primarily because women should have more power. It is not a tool.

“So what does the group do?” I asked. There were, of course, stories of how improved farming techniques and working together helped them boost earnings. And there the myth of the meek rural Indian woman would have concluded the story, in a depoliticised market where women’s hard work combined with innovation enables women to escape poverty without ever confronting what holds women back. But the story the women told was rooted in power, and rights. Only 6% of women in Uttar Pradesh have their own land. Almost all of those who do are widows or have no brothers. Only 3% of women have joint title to land with their husbands. “We want the land in our name as well as our husbands. The  government charges a huge duty on anyone who transfers land to joint ownership. We’ve got thousands of signatures from husbands agreeing to transfer if it is without government charge. But the government has not yet unblocked it. So we march. We will march until we get our land. We marched to demand access to rural extension services. The government used to offer agricultural training only to men. Women only got offered classes in making pickles! Now we have been guaranteed one third of places on all training schemes. We are demanding half.”

They were clear that their empowerment requires government action, and clear that government should work for them. It is the 66th anniversary of India’s freedom this week, and they want their freedom too. They are demanding that government provides loans, irrigation and changes in the rules on land title. They want universal access to public services too: ”When services are targetted, in the end the muscle men get them all. To reach the poor, services must be universal, that’s the only way that we won’t be prevented from using them. The rich must share with the poor. If only one person keeps all the food then only one stomach is filled. How can that be right?”

“Do women in the UK have equality at work?” they ask me. “They earn less,” I admit. “Aren’t they allowed out?” “They are.” “They go out and they still earn less?”

“Mahila bhi kisan hai! – Women are farmers too!” they shout, not seeking mere improvement but demanding equality. The group was initially inspired by the example of a Gandhian activist called Vinobha Bhave, who led a land campaign in a the 1950s. He was a determined but gentle man. He rejected confrontation. He would ask landlords to give, appealing to “the little goodness in their hearts”. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t. He kept on. The women I met in Uttar Pradesh have all of the determination of Vinobha Bhave. I am happy to report, however, that they are a little less gentle.

It’s getting clearer and clearer we’re in an inequality crisis – so why am I optimistic?

inequality

We are not living in an age of austerity. We are living in an age of brutal inequality. Millions struggle to feed themselves and their families – even in Europe. But the men who caused the financial crisis are better off now than they were the day before the crash. Five years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the firm’s former bosses are back running Wall Street. Amazon, apparently, can’t afford to pay tax where it makes its profits, can’t afford to let its workers take too many toilet breaks, but can afford for its boss to buy the newspapers that might have criticised it. We are back to the “bauble economy”.

The 300 richest people have the same wealth as the 3 billion poorest. Zambia has become a middle income country, but the number of poor people in Zambia has increased. Russia, China and India have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. 5% of Indians own 50% of the country’s wealth. In the US, President Obama has acknowledged, ”nearly all income gains of past 10 years flowed to the top 1%. This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.” In the UK, inequality is set to grow faster than it did in the 1980s.

There are so many reasons why rising inequality is a bad thing that it’s hard to know where to start. One reason, as Andy Sumner has demonstrated, is that “we find in our number-crunching that poverty can only be ended if inequality falls.” Another is that healthy, liveable societies depend on government action to limit inequality: “In physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries,” note Wilkinson and Pickett. It is also a question of voice, and power. In the words of Harry Belafonte, “The concentration of money in the hands of a small group is the most dangerous thing that happened to civilization”. Or as Jeff Sachs has noted: “Corporations write the rules, pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”

So if inequality is so damaging, and if it’s getting clearer and clearer that we’re in an inequality crisis, why I am optimistic? Because we are talking about it. Because people are saying it’s a problem. Because in a counterpoint to how the neoliberals of the 70s and 80s changed the conversation from community to individualism to break the post-war consensus that had limited inequality, so now the conversation is shifting back to community. People are challenging the idea that “economic shock treatment” cures when it literally kills. They are speaking out against the profit maximisation mantra that corporations should behave in ways which we would call psychopathic in normal human interaction.

When problems are invisibilised they cannot be fixed. It is only when we look eyes wide open and say frankly that our emperors are naked and that we do not want them as our emperors any more, that we have a chance of putting things right.

In short, I am optimistic because it is getting clearer to the majority that unrestrained inequality is bad for us all. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I see change as inevitable, only in the sense that I see it as possible. It is not that now we needn’t campaign against inequality. It’s that now, when we do, we might win.

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