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.

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.

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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.

Accused

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.

Results

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.]

Austerity’s defendent turns witness for the prosecution. The turning of Iain Duncan Smith

The media and political classes in Britain are in shock at the dramatic resignation of the minister in charge of welfare, Iain Duncan Smith. He had been seen as a hawk for austerity. Now he says it has gone too far, is politically not economically driven, is hurtful, and is dividing society. The significance of this is huge, but far too much of the media and political debate has focused on which politicians his declarations will help and harm, or what it might mean for the other debates that elites see as more important than poverty and inequality, namely the forthcoming referendum on Europe. Surely there is no more important issue than what kind of society we want to live in, and whether we really are, as he asks in his resignation letter, “all in this together”. And to have the defendent of austerity turn witness for the prosecution is a massive development. This is not an NGO slamming the austerity programme. It is the man who ran the programme.

Let us listen to what he says:

“They are losing sight of the direction of travel they should be in. It is in danger of drifting in a direction that divides society rather than unites it, and that I think is unfair.”

“That is deeply unfair, and that unfairness is damaging to the government, it’s damaging to the party and it’s damaging to the public.”

“It looks like we see benefits as a pot of money to cut because they don’t vote for us.”

That’s a lot further than we NGOs ever went! (I used to represent a number of charities on UK poverty, though now I live in Kenya and on this issue speak only for myself.)

I can understand how Iain Duncan Smith must feel when politicians say that the evidence he shares doesn’t count because he is really just pursuing a narrow partisan agenda. It’s what he and his acolytes used to say about me, and about the foodbank volunteers who shared the misery of those they met, and about the doctors who highlighted the damage to public health, and about researchers whose studies showed the harm, and about church leaders who pleaded for more compassion. I can see why many charities may be tempted now to revel in his fall. But the issue is much bigger than him. When Fifa official Chuck Blazer revealed the extent of institutionalised corruption, prosecutors did not reject his testimony because of his past – they saw that they needed to tackle the whole edifice. Likewise when the minister who ran an austerity programme exposes its true nature, social justice advocates need to  look beyond the individual to the bigger issue. That bigger issue is not one party or one country. Indeed, it can be said that for about 35 years after World War II governments of both left and right worked to constrain market excesses and contain inequality, and for the 35 years after that they both let it go. The scalp to claim is not one politician or one government, it is an ideology, a lie, that elites across Europe have held onto for far too long. Good people of all political stripes have seen an architect of austerity admit that foundations are built on sand. It is a chance for us all to turn away from it.

And though this is not about the man, one thought about the man. It seems that people like me may have misunderstood his aggression – the threats, the bluster, the anger – as certainty. But now he says he had been wrestling with the injustice for too long. Perhaps his aggression wasn’t certainty. Perhaps it was shame.

 

Reasons to be cheerful in the fight against inequality

My job is to challenge the causes of poverty. That means that I spend a lot of time highlighting the gross injustices that I have witnessed people face. This can hamper my ability to be fun at parties. “What have you been up to?” a fellow party guest will ask, and I’ll reply “I’ve just come back from spending time with people living next to an open cast mine that has destroyed their health and ruined their land.” And they’ll say “Great music, isn’t it?”

Former Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo told me about being harangued for being such a downer even by a group of fellow activists. After setting out the dangerous trajectory the world was on, an audience member replied: “Martin Luther King had a dream. Listening to you, Kumi, it sounds like all you have is a nightmare.” I could feel his pain straight away.

No one wants to be told that everything is going wrong. It’s just so damn depressing. I remember in our early courtship asking my now wife, who grew up in a village in South India, “how come everyone in the most popular Indian movies is so rich and sparkly?” She replied with the characteristic frankness born of experience: “Because we see desperate poverty every day, because we have lived it, no one wants to see any more of it.”

Civil society folks tend to respond to this conundrum in two ways. One group’s approach is to fib a little, to say that this or that global deal which just passed will transform the lives of billions. “That’s not true,” say the second group to the first, “how can you say it if it’s not true?” “You have to give people hope,” say the first group. “No,” say the second group, “the truth will set the people free, even if at first it pisses them off.” If it’s a choice between prozac and depression, it’s a crappy choice.

But what if we can do both? What if we can tell the truth and still give hope? What if there are some hopeful truths?

I think there might be several hope-giving truths in the fight against inequality. Here are three:

  1. The argument that inequality is now excessive and is socially, politically and economically corrosive – once dismissed as Soviet romanticism – is now accepted by, amongst others, the IMF, the OECD and the World Bank, as well as most economists. Those defending current levels of inequality intellectually are a sorry rump reminiscent of the Afrikaner “Bittereinders” or the Japanese soldier found still fighting World War II in a Philippines jungle decades after it was over. Intellectually, we’ve won. Even the word feminism is now mainstream.
  2. The argument we could get political leaders to agree to reduce inequality – once dismissed as the height of unrealism by the insider advocacy crowd – has been proved right in the clearest most irrefutable way possible: every single world leader has signed up to “reduce inequality within and between countries” as part of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  3. The idea that diverse groups in civil society would be willing to get behind a shared platform on inequality, indeed that they would be willing to get behind a shared platform on anything – until recently dismissed as wishful thinking in an era of big egos and big logos where everyone has their own cause and their own brand – has also been proved right, as when in the past few days social movements, feminist activists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, trade unions, NGOs, and faith-based organisations all spoke out for a common vision to fight inequality.

 together

There’s no straight road to success in the fight against inequality. It will be amongst the hardest fights that civil society have ever taken on. It’s a big agenda that connects women’s rights, work, public services and tax, land, and climate change. It’s dependent on building up people’s power. And it takes on big vested interests. The backlash will get fiercer – but as feminist theory highlights, a backlash is an indicator of progress.

Back in 2013 I wrote, in a post for this site,  “It’s getting clearer and clearer we’re in an inequality crisis – so why am I optimistic? Since then the crisis has got worse, and yet I am more optimistic. This isn’t just because I’m keen to be a bit more fun at parties. It’s because some very important milestones have been passed.

Of course, of course, governments are not doing nearly enough, and many are flagrantly breaking their pledge; and of course, of course, civil society still needs to do much more to work together and to build power from below; and of course, of course, the intellectual argument about inequality still needs to be reiterated; but my point is not to deny that there is a mountain to climb, it’s to celebrate that we’ve taken the first steps on the journey.

At the UN meetings last year I had to suppress the cynical laughter I felt inside when an official called for “evidence-based excitement”. But on reflection I think he had a point.  As Arundhati Roy puts it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

A really, really exciting, transformational, proposition is gaining traction. Step by step, vital preconditions for success are being realised. I never thought that we’d make so much progress so fast. We’ve got further along the road than I had ever dared imagine. We really do have reasons to be cheerful. I can be fun at parties, too.