Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, and Campaigns and Policy Director at ActionAid International. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, 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

Land grabbers, be afraid, the Women of Kilimanjaro are coming for you

[Across Africa, tens of thousands of grassroots women activists have been organising rallies and mobilisations as part of #women2kilimanajro, a march and assembly for land rights. Hundreds of delegates met this week at the foot of Kilimanjaro, including representatives from each country who climbed Africa’s highest peak. This is Ben Phillips’s speech given at the conclusion of the assembly in honour of the Women of Kilimanjaro.]

It is a privilege to address this group of powerful women.

Why do men take land from women? Why do corporations take land from the people? Because they believe that you are weak. But you are not weak. You are powerful.

I have learnt from you how your power comes from three things.

Firstly, the power of the your victory on the mountain. As the great Revd. Dr. Martin Luther King declared, “I have been to the mountain top!” But even he did not climb Kilimanjaro as you have. You have shown there is no mountain you cannot climb.

Secondly, the power of the music. It is said that though history is written by the rulers, it is the people who suffer who write the songs. And in the end the music wins.

Thirdly, you have the power of each other. Your friends, your partners in struggle, the women in this assembly and beyond, are your greatest strength. And together you are formidable.

My message to you is well done and thank you.

But I also have a message for the land grabbers. Be afraid. Be afraid of the women of Kilimanjaro. For they are coming for you.


What happens when you take up Bridge on their call to visit their schools?

It is said that one difference between British English and American English is that when Americans say “you really must visit us sometime” they hope and expect that you will, but when British people say it, they are certain you won’t and they will be appalled if you ever do.

Bridge, a large and controversial education corporation, has recently found itself facing even more criticism over its operations after it concluded a deal with the Liberian government to take over some of its schools (earlier mooted as a plan for all schools). Bridge has responded to critics (who include the UN, teachers’ organisations, NGOs and education experts) by suggesting that such criticism is based on ignorance. Their call: Come see our schools, and then talk!

So I did. Together with Liberian colleagues, I visited at random a school that had been passed from the government to Bridge. We declared up front exactly who we were and that we had come to learn about how their school had changed after becoming a Bridge school. The Principal and his Vice-Principal welcomed us, and we spoke at length with them and also briefly with some of the older students. The Principal and his Vice-Principal were very open and proactively brought up a range of issues of which we had not previously been aware. Towards the end, they worried that they had said too much and would get in trouble with Bridge. We promised not to share their identities, a promise we maintain.

I was shocked by what I heard and several times repeated my questions or their answers to confirm I had heard it right. In each case they confirmed. Because what I heard shocked me, and in the spirit of transparency in public debate, I wrote down the summary and shared it in a series of tweets as soon as I had internet access whilst we were still in the car getting home:



The next day we took part in a public meeting on education and privatisation where government, teachers, NGOs and private sector were all present. We shared our account of the visit.

Bridge was at the meeting too – indeed I had personally spoken with the Bridge representative about his attendance – but Bridge said nothing throughout the whole event, either to rebut any points made or even to let people know they were present.


The government and political representatives did speak, but did not defend Bridge or challenge any points made about them. Instead they argued that Liberia had no choice as some donors would only fund Bridge, and insisted that this was only a temporary decision that they might reverse.


Meanwhile, my tweets on the trip had started to go viral. And finally a Bridge voice responded – to criticise me for visiting a school when I should have instead got my information from Bridge HQ. I reminded them of Bridge’s call for people to go and see the schools.


And then Bridge sent me a letter. It is one of the most extraordinary letters I’ve ever received because it was actually more incriminating than anything I had written. I share it in full in this post, so you can “see for yourself”, as they say.

First of all, they said that I shouldn’t take the Principal’s word for how the school is run because he may not know what happens.


Consider that statement. They organise their schools on the basis that the Principal does not know about, let alone determine, how lessons are run. Remember this is not a critic writing, this is Bridge defending their model.

Secondly, they denied that the Principal (who they say doesn’t know what happens) actually told me what he told me, and claimed instead he had said “he was proud to be part of Partnership Schools for Liberia”. This struck me as odd because not only he did not use the phrase “Partnership Schools for Liberia” but no one does outside of official spokespeople. Indeed the government representative at the next day’s Monrovia meeting complained  “everyone calls it Bridge schools but that’s not the proper name!” Neither did we hear anyone we met in that whole week ever use the phrase “proud to be part of”. The words struck me as sounding rather like a media release, so I checked and found that that entire phrase is identical to the phrase they put out on launch. Compare them below.


Not only that, they quote the Principal as having apparently said to me that the reason he was proud was that he was making “meaningful impact”. Again, no one we met in Liberia used that phrase either, which sounds also more like something from corporate statement, and indeed matches exactly the phrasing of Bridge’s corporate summary of their self-evaluation. Compare below:


So, according to Bridge, teachers working for them after just a few weeks of training then use in colloquial conversation the exact PR phrases of the corporation, word for word. Critics have said the Bridge system is too scripted and pushes out creative and independent thought but no one has ever implied it goes as far as Bridge’s own letter suggests.

Lastly, while framing the letter as rebuttal they make some powerful admissions of the weaknesses in their system. For example, they “rebut” our revelation that uniforms had not yet been delivered with the statement “Bridge is now distributing uniforms.” But they had earlier publically claimed that uniforms had been given out at the beginning. Compare.

image image

This is the logistics equivalent of the taxi company who calls you to say “your car is waiting for you” and then when you call them from the outside on the deserted street says “I told you, it’s on its way“.

Of course, no one doubts that the uniforms will arrive. But the admission highlights two weaknesses. Firstly, spin over actual delivery, a challenge around “truthiness” that jeopardises both the provision and the evaluation process. Secondly, that delivery of materials is the least complicated part of school management, and the easiest to measure, and so failure on it means that other more important but harder to measure failures are inevitable. This is important because the justification for Bridge is their supposed management expertise. When you scratch the surface, the gold seems to peel off.

They also “rebut” our account of the Principal saying he had had only “17 days” training from Bridge with the statement that Bridge provides “three weeks” training, i.e somewhere between 15 and 21 days, remarkably similar to the number we quoted and really very little as a basis for turning around a public management system that Bridge says is broken. If it’s broken, can someone with no experience of running a school before fix that with 15-21 days training? A training which Bridge says leaves him not knowing how his school lessons are run?

Bridge denies that any kids who had been at the schools they took over have had to leave. But they also say that an attraction of Bridge schools is that they are smaller. (“Do the math”, as Americans say.) The Principal, and the Vice-Principal, and students, all reported this to us. It’s vital that the Government now publish how many children were in each class at each school before it was handed to Bridge, how many are there now, how many of those are students who were there before, and how many former students no longer attend each year group at each of those schools, and why. These numbers should be opened up to public scrutiny. Furthermore, the Government should issue an instruction that no child who was a student in 2015 at a school handed over to Bridge can be turned away if they now try to enter. As Bridge claims this is no kids at all, it should be very easy.

Finally, Bridge claims that my tweets disrespect Liberian teachers. I think Liberian teachers manage miracles every day in a hugely challenging context, and that they deserve better than the Bridge solution. However, let Bridge and us agree to ask the Liberian teachers union for their perspective on the Bridge programme, and to respect their advice. Deal? Bridge also claims that they are only in Liberia at the invitation of the Liberian government. Can they confirm that if they are ever disinvited, they will leave, and not as they have in Uganda take the government to court? Deal?

I should emphasise that at no point have I had to experience what the Canadian researcher into Bridge went through (he was arrested, and though he was eventually released without charge, that’s much more scary than an angry letter), and I am grateful for that. I should emphasise too that whilst I am pleased that my visit has shone a light on the crisis in Liberia, it is Liberian voices that most need to be heard. Please read this and this and follow ActionAid Liberia’s Country Director here.

And please do visit a Bridge school yourself. After all, they say you’re invited!

(PS: Bridge’s letter in full)

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After Brexit. Time to organise.

Britain has brexited. What next?

The pound and the PM are freefalling, but that’s not the big thing even now. The big thing is the rejection of almost the entire political establishment, and how this is part of a pattern across what we can still call Europe, and indeed beyond.

Looking at Brexit not as a one off in one country but as part of a pattern, three lessons seem to stand out this morning:
1. The broken economic model that breaks societies has now broken politics.
2. But for now what’s next will be so much worse.
3. Organise.

Yesterday, as Britain went to the polls, the news highlighted how global inequality is even worse than believed. But it also noted how groups are coming together to fight inequality.


In humanity’s best moments, crises have brought a recognition of solidarity. In humanity’s worst moments, crises have precipitated people turning on other people – refugees, immigrants, foreigners, people who look different. Those are the two reactions that people have to massive economic crises – either expand fraternity and find that there are many like you and that we need to work together to make the economy work for all, or take on the other.

What will happen in the next decade? I hope that people choose as they did in America in 1930’s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to cooperate more, and not choose as they did in central Europe in the 1930’s, to hate more. And I don’t know which way it will go.

But yesterday’s shocking new figures on inequality, and today’s dramatic referendum result, both seem to say that it’s time to organise.

Jo Cox, brilliance, and kindness.

Many are, undertandably, asking what are the lessons of Jo’s death. But those who had the privilege of working with Jo feel too raw to answer that. Instead, we are reflecting on the lessons of Jo’s life.

Five memories keep recurring in my mind.

One. In a mountain tent village of displaced people in Pakistani Kashmir after the awful earthquake, Jo and I go in to hear their concerns. Immediately, it is announced that we will go to meet separate groups. I will hear from the leaders – all men – and Jo will go sit with the women. I looked apologetically at Jo. Half an hour later I was released from a berating by the elders about the water supply, relieved to be leaving a meeting in which I had failed to win over anyone. As I walked past the women’s tent I heard raucous laughter. I asked someone to call for Jo. “Oh that was so much fun, do we have to go?” she asked. “What were you talking about?” “Well I told them I wasn’t married, and so they’ve been making jokes about what happens on the first night. We couldn’t stop laughing. How was your meeting?” “Great. Sure. Great.”

Two. Discussing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, when I said how determined I was to help the campaign to end it. “Well to do that and win,” said Jo, “we have to understand the fears felt by Israelis on the border.”

Three. When Jo became a Labour MP, her first move of reaching across the aisle, and befriending key Conservative MPs with whom she worked together on to advocate for refugee rights and to defend aid.

Four. Whenever she saw any of us other NGOers do anything half-decent, how effusive she was in her praise. “Brilliant, just brilliant.”

Five. The childlike smile that beamed out and made you smile back.

Jo was awesomely clever, and always saw the policy, the politics, the challenge, and the way through, quicker than others. But she was also really kind.

Outside of NGOs people might wonder if we’re all really kind. “You work for an NGO, everyone must be so lovely!” But the truth is we’re not. We can be vain and arrogant and mean – all supercharged by our righteousness. Not Jo. Not just did everyone like Jo. More impressively, Jo liked everyone.

Inside NGOs people wondered how this was possible. Surely niceness is a weakness? Surely, we’ll get eaten if we make the mistake of being nice. We’re fighting big bad enemies, we have to steel ourselves to be bad back. But Jo was nice back. She was smart about it, determined about it, ferocious even. But always nice. She didn’t just defeat opponents, she won them over.

For many of us in NGOs, our aspirations to be kind to human beings and be brilliant at helping humanity can seem in conflict. We want to show that we are serious, that we take no prisoners, that we are strong. And we are so angry at the injustices we see that really we often do quite frankly hate the oppressors. Jo wasn’t like that. She was furious at injustice, but saw no one as a permanent enemy, and everyone as a potential ally.

Many of us wondered how she managed to be both brilliant and kind. But maybe she was brilliant in part because she was kind. Maybe a lesson of her life is that hating is a millstone that holds you down, that anger weakens you, the meanness diminishes you. Maybe the right thing is the smart thing. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, as Dr King taught us.

I don’t know what the lesson of Jo’s death is. But one lesson from her life seems to be that if we want to help humanity we will do better if we are kind to our fellow humans.

The awkward squad – why development depends on dialogue and dissent. (What others can learn from the Dutch Government.)

The awkward squad – why development depends on dialogue and dissent. 

This article was first published by Vice-Versa, in imageDutch, here.

Hundreds of thousands of children who can now go to school in Kenya; millions of people with HIV in South Africa who now have access to life-saving medicines; hundreds of millions of people in rural India who now have access to a hundred days of paid manual work to protect them from hunger; billions of women around the world who can now vote. What do all these advances have in common?

All of them were secured by citizens standing up for their rights and holding governments to account. All faced push back from those in power. All involved both dialogue and dissent. It is the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. But the ability of people to dissent is becoming harder across the world as more and more governments clamp down on civil society.


Donors who support civil society in questioning power can get accused of supporting instability by host governments and of getting in the way of commercial opportunities by multinational corporations. It can seem so much easier to avoid controversy and stay away from anyone who challenges unaccountable power. But it is those very questioners on whom development depends. Too many of my conversations with development agencies on this involve reactions that range from “what?” to “sure but we can’t”. I was impressed, therefore, on my recent visit to the Netherlands, by the Dutch government for standing out among bilateral donors for having an approach to development includes a stream on “Dialogue and Dissent”. In part this flows from a long Dutch tradition – for hundreds of years Holland has been a place where writers and thinkers have found refuge and freedom to speak. But it flows too from a recognition that active citizenship and healthy debate are not just nice-to-haves but are essential for effective development.

Rebel with a cause 

This is not about being a Rebel Without A Cause. ActionAid and partners, for example, work from the inside as well as outside. They work to support governments in fulfilling their responsibilities by supporting capacity development, sharing evidence and experience and helping connect those making decisions with those affected by them. They work too to help advise business on best practice and on ensuring workers, communities and companies prosper together. They are often sought out for their advice and support.


When I met last year with the government on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania they told me that the work of ActionAid and partners in helping schools to fight child marriage was a crucial support to the government’s strategy. But ActionAid and partners also speak out when the actions of governments or corporations violate people’s rights and when people are set to be pushed into great hardship.

Last year on that same visit I also met on the Tanzanian mainland with people whose land and homes were threatened a landgrab by a Swedish company. We faced a lot of heat for speaking out in support of the community – and the community faced even greater heat. Even some donor governments questioned whether such an approach might be counter-productive. But shortly afterwards the principal funder of the landgrab pulled out, problems were recognized, the deal was put on hold, the people’s issues started to be heard and community members felt secure enough to start putting up permanent structures to support their farming again as productive citizens.

Likewise, across the world, we have challenged corporations who have not paid their fair share of tax and the systems of tax breaks which deny the resources needed for health and education: when we and others first started raising this issue we were seen as part of an awkward squad, but now international institutions say that it is their top priority and leading companies say they back the call for fair taxation.

The Dutch development minister Liliane Ploumen was right to highlight inequality as “the mother of all crises”, threatening to “unravel the very fabric of our societies”. Today’s extreme inequality is leading to an excessive and mutually reinforcing concentration of power and the wealth in an ever smaller number of hands, posing huge dangers to us all. It is in this context that what is in recent decades an unprecedented international clamp down on civil society is taking place in an attempt by those at the top to silence those who question their power by exposing corruption, exploitation, environmental damage and the violation of people’s rights.

Yet it is upon a vibrant, fearless citizenry and civil society that efforts to confront inequality and ensure inclusive prosperity are realized. The Dutch are right to support those working for more equal societies where no one has impunity, where all can be questioned, and where everyone counts. Other donors need to do the same

A little less conversation a little more action: How to tackle inequality, for real.

Sometimes, the best way to avoid doing something is to pretend that you agree. Let’s say that you are a political leader, or a corporate leader, who rather likes things as they are. You see that there is huge public concern about rising inequality, and that demands for a redistribution of power and wealth from the 1% to the rest have suddenly again become mainstream. What to do? If you reject those demands, you risk your legitimacy, perhaps even your position. But if you act on them, you face what you perceive to be personal loss, and perhaps too you fear that the plutocrats who have backed you would see to it that you fall. The best way forward, for the cynical leader, or the scared one, or the dull one, is to agree that you must act and and then do nothing meaningful about it. Gandhi said about those in power: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Perhaps he should have said: “Then they tell you that you have won, and then, only if you keep pushing, can you really win.”

This is where we have got to in the fight against inequality. We have won the debate and shown that inequality is bad for everyone, and why more equal societies are safer, more prosperous, more cohesive, and happier. We have won the struggle to get leaders to commit to act on it. But we face now the contradiction that every world leader has promised to act on inequality and yet only a handful of them are doing anything about it. Where to go from here?

Firstly, we citizens need to insist that governments take the specific actions that are needed to tackle inequality. In ActionAid’s new report, The Price of Privilege: Extreme Wealth, Unaccountable Power, and the Fight for Equality, we set out some of the policies needed to reduce inequality. These include investing in public services, redistributing land, making use of public investment, closing tax loopholes, instituting real living wages, strengthening trade unions and strengthening bank regulation. But we go further too, given the extent of the inequality crisis we are in and the need to shift power away from the 1% and towards the rest of the population. Thus we propose:

  • Institute a wealth tax.
  • Recognise, redistribute and reduce women’s unpaid care burden.
  • Increase corporate democracy — implement structural shifts towards employee control of companies.
  • Institute a maximum wage that is proportional to the wage paid to the most junior workers in a company.
  • Limit private finance for political parties and political campaigns.

The point this makes it that is now time to go beyond asking leaders if they will reduce inequality; instead we need to ask leaders whether, given their solemn commitment to reduce inequality, they will implement named, specific, and sometimes politically difficult policies which are key to reducing it. We need to let them know that they will be judged by their actions.

But we need also to go beyond merely asking leaders at all. We need to build people’s power to pressure leaders to act. An imbalance of power can never be solved merely by asking those in power to hand it over. That has literally never worked. Every one of the most important progressive social changes have been won from below, not given from on high. Just look, for example, at all those new heroes who will now grace US bank notes, in celebration of the end of slavery, the achievement of civil rights, and votes for women: Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King. All of them were activist trouble-makers who the establishment of the time tried to crush. Remember how came about the end of colonialism, the end of Apartheid, the development of welfare states, LGBT rights, the decision to “Drop the Debt”. Recall how came about free education in Kenya, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India, and free HIV medicines in South Africa. All from struggle. All from building up powerful, grassroots mobilisation and strength. Policy papers and lobby meetings alone won’t, can’t, deliver the extent of change we need. We need to build power from below.

That’s why at ActionAid we’ve helped communities in Cambodia and Tanzania to mobilise against land grabs, why we’re supporting movements of freed bonded labourers in India, why we support the tax justice coalition in Zambia, why we support movements of indigenous people taking on the mining corporations in Australia. That’s why we’ve helped to mobilise 3.8 million people in Uganda who have signed a petition to stop politicians exempting themselves from tax. 3.8 million! That’s why we’ve convened allies internationally to mobilise to fight inequality, as no organisation can win this fight on its own. These are not separate streams of activity but a part of a collective effort to show the powerful that the people will not stand for the continued concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. Not all of our work has been this transformative, and where we have made the most difference has always been through supporting national movements, never by ourselves. We are on a learning journey on this. But one thing is clear. Though all of us in civil society are still remarkably civil, a big chunk of us are coming to accept, painfully, that inequality is not a polite theoretical debate or standard-issue lobby demand. It’s a struggle between those who cling onto privilege and those extraordinary ordinary people working to prize the chance of a good society from their iron grip. Our role is to facilitate the process of people getting organised, and to help support people who though resolutely non-violent face batons and bullets from the power-wealth nexus of the vicious and avaricious.

It’s nice, really nice, that the other side has announced that they agree with our call to tackle inequality. It’s a moment to savour and celebrate. But it’s not enough. You can’t eat a commitment.

Both from governments and from civil society organisations, we need no longer ask them if they agree. We’ve won on words. We need to win now on action.


Commemorating Ireland’s Easter Rising 100 years on, and the promise of equality

[Transcript of Ben Phillips’s address at the Irish Embassy in Kenya’s commemoration of the Easter Rising on 24th April 2016]

I’ve been asked to share reflections as a relative of the Rising from the 100th anniversary commemorations that took place in Dublin this year, which I attended as the great grand nephew of Padraig Pearse.

It’s wonderful that this year the Rising has been commemorated in this way. 25 years ago, at the 75th anniversary, there was no official commemoration. This has now been put right. The events of this year have been led from the top, led by the President. He spoke beautifully of the Rising’s call for equality and the need to make good on that promise.

Whilst his political leadership has been welcome, it has even more importantly been a commemoration for the people. The Dublin commemorations were a very much organized as gathering of the families. At one event I turned to another of the relatives of the Rising and commented that we had better seats than the politicians. “Quite right too,” he said.

It was a gathering of families, but also like a gathering of one family. It was great to meet the current day James Connolly and currrent day Eammon Ceant. Eammon used to live in Nairobi, and his daughter asked me if you can still get great ice cream at Village Market.

Most inspiring of all for me was to meet the older relatives of the Rising, whose fathers and mothers had served.

Annie O’Hagan, whose mother was volunteer in the Rising even though she was pregnant.

Moira Reid, whose father was in the GPO. She was wearing all her father’s medals. She is 91, “92 this year” she told me. That smile she had that day – no one that day looked as beautiful.

Harry O’Hanrahan, whose father and uncle were in the Rising. He told me about how his brother is called Padraig Pearse O’Hanrahan

Eanna Deburca, whose father Frank Burke was a student at St Enda’s, the school that Pearse set up so young Irishmen could grow up proud. Frank played at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, served in the GPO … and was later Head Master of St. Enda’s. Eanna told me his father approached every challenge in life by asking “What would Pearse do?”

This year’s Easter weekend in Dublin had its harder moments too. Hearing from the older relatives of the Rising about the brutality that their parents experienced in prison in Wales. The tough return. The civil war. Their parents not talking about the Rising much. Them rarely wearing their medals. The day which we can now celebrate as a day of pride also being a time of loss. Tears not just of celebration but of pain too.

It was a time to hold grown men as they wept.

It was a time too for remembering what it was all for.

The promise of the proclamation: “equal rights and equal opportunities of all, cherishing all children equally”.

The dream: to replace landgrabbing by the rich with fair land redistribution to the poor, cramped slums with room to move, painful hunger with full stomachs, squalor with dignity, exploitation with decent work, corporate impunity with workers’ rights, inequality with equality, hopelessness with hope, shame with self-worth.

The idealism that drove the rebels. As Pearse wrote: “The wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life/ …To dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold./ Oh wise men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true?”

As the relatives reflected: across the world, those values and that idealism could not be more needed today. The work of the Rebels is not yet finished.

Most of all, it was an Easter Weekend of music and songs – songs that were used to communicate the Rising was coming and songs to tell its tale. For as I was told, those who wish to change the future are also called to be memory keepers

And as the older relatives told me:

The rulers write the history but the sufferers write the songs. And the music wins in the end.

[Ben Phillips is Padraig Pearse’s great grand-nephew. He lives in Nairobi where he is is international director of policy, research, advocacy and campaigns for ActionAid, an NGO working to tackle inequality and injustice.]