Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips is Director of Policy, Research, Advocacy and Campaigns, ActionAid International. 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 has 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 posts on this blog are personal reflections.

What’s mined is yours

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They call it an “indaba” – a word in several African languages for a gathering where a community gets together to resolve the problems that affect them all. But it is no community meeting – it is the world’s largest meeting of the mining industry, where the rich and powerful from across the world gather in a plush Cape Town conference centre to determine where will be mined and who will get the money. It is a meeting, in its own words, “dedicated to the capitalisation and development of mining interests in Africa,” at which “a powerful group … make the vital relationships to sustain their investment interests”. In the front rooms the delegates are entertained by Goldman Sachs, Dambisa Moyo and Tony Blair. In the back rooms mining corporations meet to cut secret deals with friendly governments and pressure any governments who have started making trouble.

Through the huge glass windows the delegates can see protests. But they don’t get to hear what the protesters have to say. They dismiss them as anti-mining, anti-progress. It is easy to complain, argue the mining indaba attendees, but would you really want an end to all mining?

No, say campaigners, who gathered in much less comfortable surroundings a few miles for an “alternative indaba”. When I get to hear the stories of some of the participants of the alternative indaba I get to understand that theirs is not a case “against mining” but for accountability. The problem they highlight is not the existence of mining but a harmful imbalance of power that renders mining corporations a law unto themselves. Here’s what I heard from activists from across Africa:

“The sharing agreements on mining deals in our country are secret. So we the public don’t know what our national wealth has been sold for. After pressure, permission was given to MPs to view these long and complicated agreements in a specific room for a set period of time without taking notes, so we’re starting to get a picture but we can’t get final confirmation. From what we’re seeing it looks like a really bad deal indeed – which is why it is secret in the first place.”

“Our laws require that a set percentage of the proceeds must go to the community, yet we find places where the mining company has now finished and left, the environment has been trashed, and the community’s share was never provided.”

“Many of our officials and ministers and their family members are private shareholders or on the pay of the mining corporations, officially or unofficially, so when we challenge the corporations we are challenging the government.”

“The fines for mining companies who break the laws are so low that the mining corporations happily factor them in as a cost of business.”

“When we revealed illegal water pollution by a diamond mine, it was not the mining corporation who were arrested, but us.”

“Our government is finally standing up to mining corporations and demanding they pay their fair share of tax. But neighbouring governments have shown absolutely no solidarity. The AU has to work much more closely together. We cannot have a race to the bottom.”

“When you start to engage the mining corporations you hope to change them, but if you are not careful they can end up changing you. After we criticised a mining corporation they invited us for a tour so, they said, we could see that they were not as we had said. At the end of the tour they tried to present us with gems ‘as a souvenir gift’. We told them we were not allowed to accept hospitality. The message was clear.”

Campaigners are asking governments to hold mining corporations to account for: open, transparent, agreements so citizens know what is happening with their national wealth; paying their fair share of taxes; free, prior and informed consent, so that acquiring communities’ land requires that communities agree; paying fair wages, protecting workers’ health and safety and respecting workers’ rights to organise; and obeying environmental laws. And they are demanding that mining corporations stop their lobbying for a lowering of these basic standards.

That’s not a charter for the end of mining. It’s a proposal that would ensure that mining really did benefit the people from under whose feet the wealth is taken.

Extreme inequality of wealth has fostered an extreme inequality of power. The widening gap and imbalance of power between the richest and the rest is warping the rules and policies that affect all of us in society, creating a vicious circle of ever growing and harmful undue influence. The mining industry’s new Scramble for Africa is making this worse.

The current imbalance of power means that governments, who should be overseeing corporations and protecting citizens, are instead protecting corporations and overseeing citizens. What should bring prosperity is bring instead bringing misery, and legitimate challenge to the mining industry is being met not with answers but with brute force, the violence of the entitled 1%.

The proposal put forward by the mining industry’s critics is not an end to mining but an insistence on real democracy. They are saying that what’s mined is yours. Which is exactly why the mining industry is so determined to keep them down.

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Joburg’s Unfinished Journey

In Joburg’s old Prison Number 4 stands a flogging frame. Here political prisoners would be instructed to step on to it and be beaten with leather, wood, or metal. Colin, who is showing me around, steps on to it and assumes the position of the prisoner. “Take a photo, take a photo,” he says. It feels mawkish and shameful. “Take a photo. This is our history.” It is not a story of victimhood, he insists, but of survival, defiance, and victory. In the tiny isolation cells the prisoners wrote “A luta continua” – the struggle continues. And now the old prison is the site of the country’s Constitutional Court. On the same land where rights were most violated, they are now guaranteed. And in the court building, a special corner window provides a view of the old prison, to remind everyone from where the country has come.

For all the criticism made of the new South Africa, the word miracle is still justified. When twenty years ago I went from England to live in a black township, white South Africans overwhelmingly thought I was mad. Now white South Africans go on day trips to Soweto, to pay homage at the former house of Nelson Mandela, shop in Soweto’s markets and dine on pap and tripe while joining in freedom songs played by African bands. In a recent public attitudes survey, only 53% of white South Africans agreed that Apartheid had been a crime against humanity – but that’s a massive increase on twenty years ago, and many white South Africans are genuinely determined to live differently from their parents.

And there have been real improvements for black South Africans. Seeing in Soweto a new university campus, new gyms and car dealerships, new clubs and cafes, new houses and new modern public transport reveals a place of progress and aspiration for a substantial number of its residents – not a place only to aspire to escape from.

But millions remain trapped in poverty, and the entry of a minority of black South Africans into the white-dominated middle class has not uplifted the majority. Indeed, economic inequality – the gap between rich and poor – is now even greater than it was at freedom in 1994. In Sandton, Joburg’s centre of commerce and home for the wealthy, people complain about “loadshedding”, when the electricity cuts out for a couple of hours and people turn to generators. In an informal settlement in Soweto I meet Gladys who lives without any electric supply at all. There had been an electricity line that went over the settlement which some families, too poor to pay, had made unauthorised connections to. In response, the authorities cut the whole line. So Gladys cooks with a gas container and lights her shack with paraffin. Her energy costs per unit are higher than those of the rich. She earns money cleaning houses in the suburbs, but most days there is no work to be found.

Returning to the other South Africa, I go to meet a friend in a fancy rooftop bar. Twenty years ago, everyone in the bar would have been white. Now the crowd is a mix of black and white, but no single table is mixed except for ours, and both of us are foreigners. Not even wealth unites this room full of South Africa’s glamorous and successful. “Ah look,” I say hopefully as two white men walk across the room with a champagne bottle to sit with two black women, “finally some integration happening”. “I think you’re being a bit too hopeful there,” replies my friend. The men’s approach was uninvited, and their attempt to impress the women with their willingness to spend on champagne rapidly escalates into bullying of the (all black) wait staff. “Quickly, man, glasses, now!” Then, when a glass is poured too quickly and some bubbles overflow “What the fuck are you doing, man, for fuck’s sake!” and later, as a male waiter apologises, one of the men smacks (taps? hits?) him on the backside. My mind casts back to the flogging frame. Oscar, the waiter, ignores it. At last the men leave.

I ask Oscar how he managed to stay calm under such provocation. “It’s nothing,” he says, “I’m used to it.”

A luta continua.

Who will defend tax dodging?

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2015 has started off as a tough year for tax dodgers. In Zambia, the new President appears to have confirmed the fears that multinational mining corporations expressed during the election campaign, by saying he expects companies to pay their tax. At the African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, the continent’s Heads of State have unanimously accepted in full the recommendations of the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows headed by Thabo Mbeki – and Mbeki has been outspoken in declaring multinational corporations as the big offenders. In Luxembourg, leaks exposing tax avoidance have created new pressure on the government and have even forced European Commission President Juncker, former PM of the country, to pledge European action to tackle it. In Britain the head of the National Crime Agency has declared war on the “hundreds of billions of pounds of criminal money laundered through UK banks.” A UK NGO coalition campaign for action against tax dodging has been welcomed by leaders across the political spectrum. In the US, President Obama has promised to tackle “corporate deserters” and to close the loopholes that enable the rich to avoid paying their fair share of tax.  And newspaper stories of companies from Google to Glencore have created a worldwide drumbeat of shame.

With this new public and political mainstream, most corporations are going out of their way to distance themselves from the label of “tax dodger”. They stress their respect for the law, their recognition of the importance of taxation – they talk about their diligence and their contribution. Their social license to operate seems to demand that they promise that they are on the side of the public on this one.

So will no one defend the tax dodgers?

In this context, the Adam Smith Institute’s outspoken support for tax avoidance is a valuable reminder that we do have an opponent, that progress on tackling tax avoidance is difficult not only, or even primarily, because it is technically complex, but because some people think tax avoidance is just fine. In the words of the Adam Smith Institute, which once played a very influential role on economic policy, “advising people on how to avoid certain corporate taxes in poorer African countries” shows “public spiritedness” and is “a bloody good idea”. “If you’ve advised people to dodge that corporate taxation,” they add, “you’ve just raised the wages of some of the poorest people in the world.”  With all due respect to the Adam Smith Institute for not hiding their teeth on this one, and with somewhat less respect for their mis-remembering of the historical Adam Smith, they are not our prime opponent.

Our prime opponents are much sneakier, much cleverer, than the outspoken ideologues who publicly declare tax dodging is good. The people we have to fear operate not in the light but in the shadows. They say that they support reforms to tackle tax dodging, just not the ones we propose, or they say they support the ones we propose, and then flood Washington, Brussels, London and the world’s poorest countries with lobbyists hired to undermine progress. Of course most of what the big corporations do to avoid tax is legal. They spend a fortune on lobbying to ensure it stays that way.

We’ve won the argument on tax. But that’s just phase one in the long struggle for tax justice. Our opponents are hugely rich, frightening powerful and totally unscrupulous, and are not used to losing. Goliath has been shamed, but he’s still massive.

We have not reached the end of the war on tax dodging. We’ve not even reached the beginning of the end. But thanks to the tenacity of activists across the world, we have, at least, reached the end of the beginning.

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It’s time for development experts to admit that poverty is a #firstworldproblem too

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“Starbucks wifi not working on my iPhone #firstworldproblems” – if your twitter timeline is full of such stories, you are probably following a few too many Northern development experts. Though minor inconveniences still trouble their lives of unexotic comfort in London, New York, or academia, they signal self-awareness that these are nothing compared with what they know of Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

To be fair, some of the stories of #firstworldproblems are thoughtful and funny. But these declarations of self-awareness highlight a troubling blindspot, these celebrations of intended irony highlight an unintended one. It springs from the same mindset as the one that argues that the Sustainable Development Goals now being negotiated at the UN needn’t oblige the North to address its domestic inequality and poverty as that would be a “distraction” from “real”, Southern, poverty. The mindset that says poverty is another country. And that mindset threatens the achievement of social justice in the North and South.

When the worldview of the dominant is that becoming first world means an end to poverty, the most vital determinants for overcoming poverty are ignored. There is no teleological inevitability about overcoming poverty – social justice is not a train journey from being Southern to being Northern. It is always a struggle, it is always about values and about power. When this truth is forgotten, or deliberately obscured, poverty gets worse. That is why we have seen the return to mass poverty in the global North. And the forgetting of that lesson also encourages failures to address poverty in the South.

In Mediterranean Europe the EU and the IMF have imposed brutal reductions on living standards that saw massive pauperisation and social dislocation. The IMF has responded to critics by saying that they couldn’t sympathise with Greeks as real poverty was in Africa. But African civil society organisations have responded with more empathy and more insight by pointing out that poverty in Mediterranean Europe has been getting so bad because the same structural adjustment once foisted on Africans has now been getting foisted on Spaniards and Greeks. The protections and the moderation of inequality brought in across the global North with the postwar consensus have been ruptured. 91 year old RAF veteran Harry Smith, recalling his experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s and now seeing Britain’s increasing “payday loan sharks, food banks, [and] housing shortages” writes “it’s not shock I feel but a sense of recognition.” In the US, all of the growth since the crash has accrued to the richest 10%. Actually, more than all of it – the rest is worse off. We cannot exempt the global North from discussions of poverty any more. The willful blindness to Northern poverty is hurting too many people in the North. And the deceit is also hurting people in the South.

Southern Governments like Brazil and Bolivia that have focused on redistribution have successfully reduced poverty at a fast pace. In contrast, while Zambia has moved from officially poor to officially middle income, the number of poor people has actually increased. Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development is not alone in saying of the relationship between growth and poverty reduction: “It really is that simple.” But it isn’t. India’s drive to become an economic powerhouse has become a alternative to addressing the real reasons why it’s child malnutrition rates are twice as bad as Sub-Saharan Africa and why its human development performance is much worse than poor Bangladesh. South Africa’s ANC won plaudits for economic responsibility by abandoning the redistributive calls of the Freedom Charter – and now the gap between rich and poor is worse than it was at the end of Apartheid.

Meanwhile, in the Global North, the norm of security and decent living standards has been replaced by widescale insecurity, and the kind of poverty that we had thought a thing of the past is now back.

One contribution that Northern development analysts can bring to development is to help tell the true story of the North. For example, they can highlight the similarities between way that Glencore avoids paying fair tax in Zambia and the way that Amazon and Google avoid paying their fair share to countries in Europe. Or how austerity is bringing back in the North medical conditions like rickets that we once thought consigned to the history books. Yet like the anthropologists of old they are most reluctant to observe such matters at home. Poverty is treated as a tropical disease rather than as a consequence of inequality. But until we unexempt the North from discussions of poverty we fail not just the poor the North but those in the South too, by helping to perpetuate an assumption that is untrue – that when a country passes a particular economic stage its people are freed from poverty. They are not. It’s time for development experts to admit that poverty is a #firstworldproblem too.

New Boy: What they said to me on my first day at ActionAid

“So how do you think we should use EAGLES to apply the HRBA and SO2 to IHART?”

“That’s the one sentence version. And here is the 265 page version. Hey, you’ve forgotten to take it with you.”

“We can’t call her now, she doesn’t wake up till lunchtime… I mean, because of the timezone.”

“There’s something we all want to ask you. It’s very important. We hope now is an OK moment to propose it. I’ll just say it, it’s this: we all want to go out next week for drinks.”

“I got into social justice issues because I studied African literature but when I went to meet academics in Africa they didn’t want to talk to me about books but about the IMF caps on teacher salaries – because on those salaries they couldn’t afford books.”

“I got into social justice because I was brought up in my grandfather’s village by him and his two and half wives.”

“When we urge other organisations to shift their approach from charity to helping people claim their rights, we’re not finger pointing, we’re reflecting on the learning from our own history, from when we did well what shouldn’t be done, and it didn’t work, and we changed.”

“My proudest moments have been in being part of helping to defeat landgrabs, through local organisation, national campaigning and international solidarity. And the beaming face of the farmer when he heard that the SMS he’d sent to our landgrabs emergency hotline had been shared through social media with millions across the world. He was the leader, we were the amplifiers.”

“It was inspiring to observe young activists planning their own campaigns on tax. Let’s face it – tax policy is boring and tax policy analysts are boring. But for young activists tax meant their schools and their health, and that connection was the source of their power.”

“I know you said you didn’t want to make any decisions on your first day but you need to make this one. We’ve been asked to back the campaign for disappeared Laotian activist Sombath Somphone. It’s just the right thing to do.”

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“Our work is rooted at the grassroots, and right from the start it looks at issues of power. And once you start looking at local power you need to look at national and international power too. And at your own.”

“The most important things you need to know about ActionAid are this picture.”

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“How did we shift from the old approach to the empowering one? Well, we haven’t finished that yet. It would be romantic to suggest that everything is sorted.”

“I’m doing your profile, but the only photos of you online are at strange angles, is that deliberate?”

“You’ve worked for a range of other organisations we respect but, to be frank, we don’t want to turn into those organisations. We want to be us – but keep on becoming a more effective version of us.”

Me too.

From exclusion and inequality to humanity and Francisconomics? My personal reflections before a meeting in Rome

This month I’ll be joining a meeting convened by the Vatican on overcoming social and economic exclusion, and was asked in advance to share my personal reflections …

My personal journey into learning about social and economic exclusion began at the grassroots. As a young volunteer, I left England to live as the only white resident in a black township in South Africa as a teacher and ANC activist, just after the end of Apartheid. There I learnt from my friends about how, through determined and painful struggle, the most brutal exclusion had been overcome, and also about the ongoing challenges still faced.

My later work, running programmes and campaigns for the Children’s Society, Save the Children, and Oxfam, has taken me to live in ten cities and four continents, seeing for myself how processes of social and economic exclusion can break the lives of the poor, and dehumanise the rich. And it has also enabled me to see glimpses of a more positive future – where social movements, NGOs, progressive business leaders and governments – have shown that economics can and should put the human at the centre.

My current work, as Director of Oxfam’s Campaigns and Policy, has focused on examining and highlighting the challenge of rising inequality.

Last month, in a ragpickers slum in Delhi, I sat with an amazing group of women and girl leaders who have found that together they have power. “We used to be so shy, I would not go out of speak like this, but then one person, then another, then another, and then more got involved. Schools are our right, the right of every person – and yet our neighbourhood had no school. We campaigned for a school, then for no fees, then for enough teachers, then for chairs and desks. We won.  We are pushing for a health centre now. We used to fear government officials – now they fear us!”

And last month too I helped launch Oxfam’s global campaign to tackle rising inequality, Even it Up. Extreme economic inequality has exploded across the world in the last 30 years. Seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago.  Inequality is preventing poverty eradication at the global level. As I saw for myself in Zambia when I met with landless farmers there, despite the country moving from officially poor to officially middle income, the number of poor people has actually increased. Inequality exacerbates conflict, harms social cohesion, undermines economic progress and corrupts politics.

The good news is the increasing recognition that this is problem, as see in the plaudits for the campaign from Kofi Annan, Graca Machel, Joe Stiglitz and the Chief Economist of the Bank of England and this great clip from CNN. The press in India and Pakistan have both been talking about how Oxfam has put down the challenge to build more equal societies. And it’s been deeply moving, given my own experience working in South Africa, to see South Africa’s leading newspaper say that the extreme inequality revealed in the Oxfam report makes a mockery of South Africa’s freedom.

Rising and extreme inequality is jeopardising progress on tackling poverty and is hurting us all. But we have cause for hope too: it doesn’t have to be this way, rising inequality is not inevitable and can be fixed. Poverty and inequality are not inevitable or accidental, but the result of deliberate policy choices. Inequality can be reversed.

That’s why I’m excited that this meeting is taking place in Rome. Pope Francis summed up the inequality crisis with great clarity in Evangelii Gaudium:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expreses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”

Once again, as with the movement to drop third world debt, people around the world are being inspired by the call of the Holy See and the Catholic Church to reinstate human beings at the centre of economics. Like Pope Francis, they are demanding that world leaders act to address rising inequality which is holding back poverty reduction and dividing societies. Through its teaching, through mobilising millions of people for social justice, through its convening of diverse leaders, through its international diplomacy, and through the personal example of Pope Francis, the Holy See is playing a unique and transformational role in advancing the cause of tackling rising economic inequality.

A more inclusive economy is within our grasp, if our leaders seize it. But to generate the political will required will need a movement of people across the world, pressing for a more equal society that values everyone and promotes the common good. The good news is that the movement is building.

Development as love – what I learnt from my Dad

In International Development circles you are supposed to say that your ideas about Development come from Sen or Ul Huq or Cardoso. You are not supposed to say that the most important lessons were things you learnt from your Dad. Nevertheless: for me, the most important lessons I learnt about Development were from my Dad. And the greatest of these was love.

When we discuss Development models we often debate their efficiency, but the most important issues are not extrinsic but intrinsic. The most vital exchanges we have with people are never trades – they are acts for which no one counts the cost or seeks reward. As a child my Dad took me with him to help provide meals and friendship for the elderly, and through that I learnt by his lived example that such support needed no justification (do visited elderly people produce greater economic benefit?), it was just fundamental to being a human being – that we help our family, and the world is our family. Likewise from seeing him in his roles as as church warden, youth club leader, charity trustee, volunteer, father and husband, I learnt that the higher goal is not that we should be independent but that we should be interdependent. Now, in Development, debates are rightly held about the different and complementary roles of the state, of NGOs, and of others, in ensuring that people get the support they need. What I learnt, from the smiles on the faces of the people whom Dad helped, is that vital in all support is that people know and feel that they are cared for.

I have been asked, as the son of the former head of the advertising industry’s trade association, if my going into Development was a break with my history, even a rebellion. But really it was a way to apply the values of my Dad – community, compassion, responsibilty, dignity, love. That everyone matters is not an ideological or a partisan value but it is a radical and profound one.

A few days ago, at the start of an Oxfam visit to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I got a call from my family that Dad was at his end. All of my colleagues there hugged me and told me to hurry back, to cut short my Oxfam visit, as the most important thing was to be with him. Some friends kindly said they hoped Dad would recover, but the role of his medical care now was not to bring about a recovery – that time was gone – but to ensure that as he left the world he went well, with dignity and peace, that he could hear and hold his loved ones, could know that we were with him. We fed him, as he had once fed us, and we read to him, as he had once read to us. We read him Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in the King James Version where – appropriately – “love” is translated as “charity”. It concludes: “When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” But the most important things I learnt were from my Dad.