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.

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.

Paris tears: inequality vs people power at the #COP21 climate talks

Right in front of us, the chair of the Paris climate talks burst into tears.chairHer tears were the most appropriate summary of the summary of the draft deal. The emissions levels pledged, which would have needed to amount to no more than a 1.5 degree rise to keep the world safe, or a 2 degree rise to keep the promises made, add up instead to a 3 degree rise. That means millions of people pushed back over the paltry poverty line, on purpose. The finance pledged for adaption is only a fraction of what official estimates calculate is needed, while there is no mechanism to pay for the loss and damage already caused; worse, much of the finance is double counting or will be taken away from, rather than be additional to, development aid, and much of it is in loans, so that the victims are lent money with interest to bandage the wounds inflicted by the lender. It is the most brutal inequality. What else to do but weep?

But despite this, campaigners in Paris are upbeat. I caught up with Yeb Sano, the former Philippines climate negotiator whose tears at an earlier failed climate meeting became a viral video which moved millions of people around the world. Now an activist, he’d just walked for sixty days from Rome to Paris as part of a People’s Pilgrimage.

yeb

“You don’t look tired,” I remarked. “Humans were built to walk,” he replied. “Are you optimistic about the Paris talks?” I asked. “No.” “How come you look happier than I’ve ever seen you?” “The movement is building.”

I passed the Bataclan where destructive nihilism felled young people singing and dancing, and stopped to pay my respects.

bataclan

The listing at the Bataclan remains as it was that night. A beautiful tribute, a quiet defiance. The music goes on. And we counter the nihilism of that night with an insistence on the common good, and in marching for a world where all are precious. How right it is that people should gather in Paris for climate justice, just as we did in Tunis for social justice.

What is happening is bigger than the text. Details are still be finalised in the Paris text, and important fights are being fought in the negotiating hall, but whatever is agreed it is clear that it will not be enough. It’s clear too that it’s not even a small step in the right direction – some of the trajectory is in the wrong direction. The discussion is about action after 2020, so the powerful have given themselves a five year climate action holiday; the progressive framework of the UNFCCC is being undone; rich countries have got the NGO observers banned from being inside the negotiations to witness what is happening; and a strategy of divide and rule is being used by the West to pit Asia against Africa, and separate the so-called middle income countries (home to most of the world’s poor) from the rest of the developing world, so that failure can be blamed on the Indians or Chinese whose per capita emissions remain well below those of the West. Some activists and even governments are so frustrated with the text that they are already starting to say that no deal would be better than a bad deal. None of those who think a deal still worth making argue that it would be a cause for celebration.

But something else is happening. The power of the people is starting to gather. Unprecedented numbers of people have taken peacefully and powerfully to the streets, including in Paris.

Faith communities have come together as one to call for climate justice. They shared a petition of 1,780,528 people, each name carefully recorded – but most importantly, done together.

faith

The people most affected by climate change are organising, speaking out, and being heard.

ifwedont

And groups are coming together across the old dividing lines. Friends of the Earth chair Jagoda Munic put it perfectly: “our work is to increase the power of communities and to decrease the power of big corporations; we cannot bring the changes, on the scale we seek, on our own.” The movement to fight inequality is getting stronger, uniting NGOs and trade unions, development and environment, secular and faith, campaigners from the North joining with the social movements from the South.

None of this is in time for this climate meeting. The official process has been overrun by greenwash and smothered by corporate lobbying. A poster to greet those arriving in Paris describes 50 ideas to tackle climate change. Sponsored by Total. None of them is about restraining Total. Contrasting the rhetoric of world leaders with the power politics of the talks, a colleague tweeted, “Koch brothers raising ugly hydra heads at COP21. In latest text US doing opposite of Obama’s pretty speech on Monday.”

I felt the contradictory emotions of short term pessimism and longer term optimism when I spent the day with young activists from Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Brazil. None of them were what might once have been called “climate activists” – all of them were activists who saw how connected climate was to their wider struggles for social justice.

young people

Saiba, from Gambia, shared how he had only managed to get through school through the kindness of neighbours and friends who had paid the fees, and how this led him to be campaigner against inequality. He talked about his families’ farm, and how the rice fields were now wrecked by flooding and he didn’t know what they would do if there was no harvest. Rafaela from Brazil talked about how she had managed to break free from a father so violent he had tried to kill her, and how she and her mother now made their living, and secured their dignity and independence, by cultivating a small farm. She shared how that land had always been dry, but was now becoming so dry that farms were becoming unfarmable and diseases like typhoid were spreading. Social injustice had pushed them to the edge and climate injustice was pushing them over it. Rafaela was appalled at the selfishness and greed she sensed in Europe: “I come from a place where if you have no food we will feed you, if you have no shirt to wear we will take off ours and give it to you. People here have everything. I don’t understand why they find it so hard to share.” But others in the group were more hopeful. That morning we had formed a human chain with thousands of others across Paris. It gave them hope that change was possible. “When I go back to Senegal,” said Ngom, “I will tell them about all the French people who joined hands with us, so far that you could not see either end. I will tell people that there are many many people in Europe who are on our side.” They asked me what I thought would happen: “I think that you will win,” I told them. “But I don’t think it will be today.”

What will that victory look like? It will be when the powerful are forced to compromise with the people, when fossil fuels are fossilised, resources more evenly shared and the climate crisis halted. I believe it will come. And we will celebrate, rightly. But then we will look back and we will see all those who did not get there with us. We will see whole islands disappeared, whole cultures lost, millions of lives cut short, millions forced to live away from the place they call home. We will remember them. And like the chair of the climate talks, we will burst into tears.

 

Life in a Town called Coal

The Town called Coal

In the town centre the austere concrete municipal building is still inscribed with the old Apartheid-era name name Witbank, but the town has been rebranded eMalahleni, isiZulu for the place of Coal. The name perfectly captures not just the economic dominance of coal in the town but that the town in itself is organised around coal. Across the globe, coal mining corporations are under pressure for producing the fuel that is worst for the world’s climate; coal corporations seek to counter this pressure by drawing attention to the development benefits they bring. Where better to see those benefits than the Town called Coal? Here are some of the people we met and the benefits we saw.

Sara

sara sara2

Sara lives together her daughter and her grandchildren in a disused trailer just yards away from the MNS coal mine. Sara used to be a farm worker, until the farm on which she worked was sold off to a mining corporation. Like the other farm workers, she lost her job, and has not been able to find work in the mine. The coal dust and smoke in the air has brought respiratory illness to her and to her daughter and grandchildren. Though she lives right next to a coal plant, she has no electricity. No one in her community does. There is no power supply for them. Continue reading

People Power – What Progress on Fighting Inequality Would Look Like

Movements overcome injustices not just by bearing witness to the wrongs of the time, but by enabling people to envision a better future. Martin Luther King described the Dream, the Promised Land, the place towards which people were marching. The Anti-Apartheid movement set out the Freedom Charter. Campaigners for debt cancellation painted a picture of a world where millions more kids would go to school. In a similar way, groups involved in the emerging and coalescing movement to tackle inequality are going beyond describing why inequality is wrong, and are articulating what progress on fighting inequality would look like. In listening to some of those discussions in Nairobi, Addis and New York, I’ve heard what amounts to a vision of transformation.

It’s clear that, for the movement against inequality, change would look like much more than just the use of the movement’s language by those whom the movement is pushing to change course. Activists are pleased that the World Bank and IMF now acknowledge that inequality has gotten out of hand and needs to be tackled. But they note that hasn’t yet noticeably shifted how they actually operate in countries. The World Bank’s confusion on school fees is still hindering access to free education for all. The IMF still promotes austerity and regressive taxes. Activists are pleased that every government (every single one) just committed at the UN meetings in New York to reduce inequality within and between countries – something that very senior leaders from very powerful countries told many of us they would never ever commit to, just weeks before they did. But they note that the number of governments seriously reducing inequality within countries can be counted on one hand – and say that the commitment to reducing inequality between countries has been undermined by rich countries blocking progress on an international body to tackle tax dodging. The movement to tackle inequality is not a campaign for nicer language – it’s a struggle for a fairer society, for shared prosperity, for a world where no one has impunity and no one is a nobody. It is a struggle for dignity.

Activists say that progress in the fight against inequality would look like governments across the world learning from, and going further than, the policies introduced by the Lula government in Brazil which redistributed income, increased social protection, increased jobs and salaries for the poor, and increased people’s access to land. Progress would look like access to free, publicly provided, health and education for all; it would look like more jobs, higher minimum wages more strongly enforced, and greater rights at work. It would look like a massive increase in people’s access to land and the enforcement of free prior and informed consent. It would look like progressive taxes, progressively spent, and a clamp down on tax dodging. It would look like action on climate change that kept temperature rises below 1.5 degrees and ensured the poorest people were compensated for the loss and damage that others have caused. It would look like proper checks on corporate power. Progress in the fight against inequality, activists emphasise, would not just mean a narrowing of the gap between the richest and the rest but also, and indivisibly, greater equality between women and men, and between racial, religious and caste groups.

Most importantly, activists are saying that progress in the fight against inequality would look like a strengthening of the power of ordinary people – more people finding support in community groups and trade unions, a stronger voice for people in decisions that affect them. This is partly because the scale of change entailed can only come about through pressure from below – it is the only way it ever has. And because any change would be either inadequately followed through, or be too easily reversible, unless people power hold governments to account. (As President Obama said in his speech to the UN, “Development is threatened by inequality: the wealthy like to keep things as they are, and have disproportionate influence.”) But it is also because inequality is ultimately a question of power – and societies are only truly more equal when power is more equal. This is not just a movement to change the rules but also to change who gets to make the rules.

It’s clear that change on this scale will be difficult, that it will take years, that it will meet resistance from the powerful. But it’s also clear that we have reason for hope. Victories are being achieved. We’ve seen glimpses of what is possible, of what progress in the fight against inequality already looks like: the successful halting of the Swedish sugar deal in Tanzania that would have left thousands of farmers landless; the mobilisation of a million farmers in Uganda against taxes on agricultural inputs; the ending of VAT on bread in Zambia; the resignation of the President of Guatemala after protests against corruption; the handing back of land illegally acquired in Cambodia; the expansion of primary education across Africa; the growing challenge to austerity in Europe; the resurgence of activism in the US led by the Black Lives Matter movement; the G77 standing together in Addis for a global tax body; developing countries insisting that compensation for loss and damage be part of the deal on climate change.

It’s clear too that all that change only happened through the building of pressure from below. Last month we saw key civil society leaders commit to this agenda. “Fulfilling our promises to eliminate extreme poverty requires everyone to tackle inequality,” declared Graca Machel, “I welcome this initiative to build a movement for a more equal world where each one of us takes responsibility.” “We will get back down to the ground, back to organising, village by village, street by street,” promised Anti-Apartheid leader Jay Naidoo. ActionAid’s Adriano Campolina recalled that “every single moment when we defeated power, we did so working together – NGOs, unions, social movements – united”. Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima declared that “the energy for tackling inequality must be driven by the 99%”. Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary pledged to strengthen partnerships to help organise informal workers and the unemployed. Leaders from faith based groups including Bernd Nilles of CIDSE and John Nduna of ACT Alliance committed to a transformational agenda to challenge inequalities. And Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation committed to tackling the root causes of inequality including by confronting privilege. The commitment to a people-powered approach from these powerful leaders can help give the growing movement against inequality vital strength and support. But even as I kept pinching myself on hearing from so many leaders in New York the rousing recognition of both the problem and the solution, I found myself feeling that I might be in the wrong place in terms of the change we need. In the middle of a formal UN meeting I opened a picture sent by a friend of the Soweto Pride March for LGBT equality – and was reminded where the most important change will come from. Later, with youth activists who had stopped a demolition of a neighbourhood in Kibera slum in Nairobi, I saw again the power that comes from grassroots mobilisation. Progress in the fight against inequality will not look like lots of international meetings – it will look like lots of local mobilisations, connected across the world.

Kenyan activist Njoki Njehu, who started in grassroots mobilisation with Wangari Maathai, and then went on lead movements challenging the World Bank in DC, talked recently with a group of campaigners about why she returned from DC to Kenya and went back to organising at the grassroots. “DC can be a great place to fight for change but you can also get lost in circles. You can have a campaign with great reports and media but will change no lives, until you start to organise and mobilise people. Don’t get lost in influencing peddling. Power for change always comes from below.”

What will progress in the fight against inequality look like? It will look like people power.