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.

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

FIRST-WORLD-PROBLEMS

“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.”

www.sombath.org

“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.”

powerinpeople

“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.

Inequality and the dangerous radicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Glasgow Govan’s gentle hard men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unquiet: Challenging Inequality in Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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