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.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

The struggle over inequality: What to expect as world leaders meet in New York this week

If you’re in New York this week, you’re in good company, as world leaders congregate at the United Nations to mark the end of the old Millennium Development Goals (old promises hampered by a lack of funding and a failure to tackle vested interests and so not fully met) and the start of the new Sustainable Development Goals (new promises hampered by a lack of funding and a failure to tackle vested interests and so …)

Also here are the NGOs asking world leaders awkward questions like “How will you pay for your promises? Have you thought about tackling tax dodging?” and “But you know that to tackle poverty you’re going to have to reduce inequality, right?” Stuff like that. (Memo to governments annoyed with such impertinence: the NG stands for Non-Government, that’s our role.)

But the really big draw this year is the PopeStar, the PopeIdol, the RockandRoll: Francis. He’s got the smallest country but the biggest fan club. Other world leaders wonder why everyone keeps cheering the kind old man who keeps saying that the rich and powerful have a duty to share what they have, that governments have a responsibility to make their countries and the world more equal, and that every person deserves a decent job with a living wage and the right to join a union. Those other leaders can’t see what it might be that makes such a leader so popular, and they guess it must be the hat.

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Meetings like the UN General Assembly are partly an excuse for a schmoozfest, and partly a chance for pomp, and partly a place for fixing immediate crises.

But they are also an occasion where global norms are shaped – not just by the text that is signed but also by the debates that are held. And the big debate, the big clash, is about the importance of inequality. For several decades now most leaders have pursued policies that have increased inequality, and claimed that a rising tide will lift all boats. The consequence of that has been an increase in the number of superyachts from 6000 to 9000, and a divided unstable world that cannot meet the pledge to end poverty unless it changes course.

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That in Africa the 10 richest families have the same wealth as the poorest half of that continent (calculations by the World Bank) is a one more illustration of today’s brutal inequality. So too is that, across countries, the number of people in guard labour can be predicted by how unequal a country is. And that even the IMF says inequality is slowing down growth. And that even top business chiefs are warning that inequality has gotten out of control for a functioning market. But still most world leaders either deny that there is an inequality crisis or continue to pursue policies that make inequality worse.

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That’s why a growing movement across civil society is coming together to challenge inequality. This week Graca Machel will join International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow, NGO chief executives and grassroots activists, to highlight how inequality is holding the world back and how to build pressure from below to force world leaders to tackle it. Link here if you’d like to come along. NGOs will also be holding rallies and stunts to push the issue of inequality onto the leaders’ agenda – challenging governments in the hallways and in the streets. This is what Anti-Apartheid leader Jay Naidoo calls the struggle against “Apartheid 2.0” – the widening chasm between a powerful few and the rest. And that’s why he’s here alongside us in New York.

We already know exactly what the new SDGs will say. Every dot and comma has been pre-agreed. The only thing we don’t yet know is whether this time leaders will keep their promises. What will determine the answer to that is whether they get serious about tackling inequality. And what will determine that is whether the rest of us make them do so. Increasingly, people are fighting back. They are saying they can’t win when the game is rigged, and asking what would the world look like if the rules were fair.

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The powerful have shown a really nasty side this month. That’s great news.

In the Addis talks over tackling tax dodging, and in the EU-IMF talks on Euro-austerity, the powerful have shown a really nasty side this month. That’s great news.

How can I say that when we see the suffering that this will cause? How could be I so heartless as to see the opportunity in the crisis? Of course I don’t mean that the suffering is a price worth paying, or even that suffering should be necessary to social change. I only mean this: the suffering has been happening. What has been happening less is the powerful showing how deliberate their actions are. Now we see it. It’s the difference between brutality that has been caught on a cameraphone and broadcast on youtube, and brutality hidden behind a wall. Events in Addis and in Athens show how business as usual works, who dominates it, and its emptiness. It’s not hidden anymore. As Gandhi noted, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. We’ve got to stage three.

In the EU-IMF talks on Euro-austerity, we know that terms have been imposed on Greece that aren’t deliverable. We know this because the IMF’s own documents say so. In the Addis talks, we know that the reason we don’t have a global tax body to tackle tax dodging is because the rich countries blocked it – not that people looked at it and decided on a better way, but that poor countries proposed it and rich countries blocked it. We may wish that the powerful were not like that – but if they are it is better that we know that they are. What Addis showed is there is no reliable “global leadership” from the great powers of the North. Southern government assertiveness, backed up by South-North civil society solidarity, will be key. That’s how we stopped the steamroller of the WTO.

As we look at how to tackle inequality and how to combat climate change, it is clear that we are not all on the same side. Sometimes pushing a rock up a hill is hard because it’s a rock and it’s a hill. But sometimes it’s even harder because someone at the top is trying to push that rock back down the hill.

But what’s also clear is this. The powerful don’t usually like having to show the force behind their power except when they actually have to. As social theorists from Gramsci to Chomsky have pointed out, things run much smoother for those in power when there is a semblance of process and consent. That the type of power shown over the Addis talks and the Greece talks has been so nakedly brutal is paradoxically a sign of its weakness. This is what Martin Luther King noted in the struggle for civil rights. We’re relearning it now.

This isn’t an argument for exclusivism. I’ve just come back from meeting on inequality and climate change that brought together Naomi Klein and the Vatican. That’s quite a broad movement. As different issue groups converge in common cause, as unions and environmentalists, faith groups and feminists, grassroots movements and NGOs, all link up, the power from below is building. And one day the establishment will organise stamps and holidays to celebrate the victories for tax justice, climate action and the reversal of inequality, just as now they do for yesteryear’s victories that they fought just as hard to prevent, and lost. Remember the powerful resisted civil society on slavery, suffragettes, colonialism, apartheid and civil rights.

NGOs need to stop saying “this is a crucial year” or “this is a key meeting”, and get back to the business of organising. Justice won’t come today just because there is a meeting, or a moment. But it can come tomorrow, when there is momentum from a movement. That movement is growing. And it’s becoming smarter, clearer-eyed about who is in the way. And that’s great news.

NGOs get their courage back on inequality and climate (thanks to the Pope)

“I’m off to the most radical country in the Western world,” I told my colleagues, “the Vatican.” There was a time when NGO radicalism would have made our collective attendance at a Vatican meeting appear like a strange moment of conservatism. Now it seems like one of the most radical things that NGOs can do.

Among many secular NGOs with proud records of critiquing the Church (and rightly so, very rightly so, very rightly so), there’s been an outbreak of praise for the Pope. But we can’t just pat the Vatican on the head for catching up with us on economic inequality and the climate crisis – they’re overtaken us, and now its our turn to catch up. They’ve progressed, but over the past decades we’ve slipped.

“Finance, special interests and economic interests are trumping the common good so their own plans will not be affected.” Yes, Naomi Klein is here with us at the Vatican. But that’s not a quote from Naomi Klein, that’s a quote from the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si. He’s written the world’s most dangerous book, one that most NGO policy people admit they wouldn’t have gotten sign off for.

In a world where corporate power has become unaccountable, will organised civil society find the courage to challenge plutocracy? Will we speak truth to power, and speak truth about power? Even when we are pressured by governments and corporations, even when we are told to be realistic, even when the powerful few offer some of us privileged access or extra funds if we’re well-behaved?

At the Vatican we meet the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. He speaks movingly about the impact of climate change on his country. “Whole islands are being buried. We need a legal mechanism recognising Loss and Damage. We are told it is unrealistic. But if it was your country, wouldn’t you?” He tells us of a question a school girl asked him when he visited one of Tuvalu’s outer islands: “Prime Minister do I have a future?” And then he turns her question on us. A real deal on climate change would mean a yes – but business as usual will mean a deal that drowns the weak. We’ll look back and remember his speech like we recall Haile Selassie’s plea to the League of Nations in 1936.

In the run-up to the meeting of world leaders on climate change in Paris in December, there’s a risk that NGOs get stuck in the inside game and get locked into declaring a deal – any deal – as victory. A source close to the talks once told me excitedly “I think we’ll get a deal, we’ll actually get a deal.” I asked him: “Will it be a deal that will prevent massive human suffering in countries like Bangladesh?” “Ah,” he said. “That, I’m not so sure about that.” If Paris fails to deliver, we’ll be complicit unless we say so. Former Bolivia negotiator Pablo Soran is here at the Vatican: “There is no real negotiation happening in Paris. It’s the beginning, not the end. Only the truth will set us free.”

The scale of change, the transformation needed to tackle climate and inequality, will not come from gentle whispers inside corridors, but from challenging the people in power with the power of the people. Yeb Sano, the former negotiator for the Philippines, is here on behalf of a people’s pilgrimage mobilising people across the world to march to their capitals and to Paris. As an official negotiator in the talks he was seen as a troublemaker by the US and others. Out of the halls and into the streets, he’s causing even more trouble now.

This courage is infectious. I’m hearing colleagues from very mainstream civil society and church groups finally getting ready to speak out boldly on how starting to fix our unequal society and our damaged climate means taking on the power of the plutocracy, and withstanding the pressure they will put back on us. “We’ve all been thinking it,” one NGO senior leader tells me, “we’ve all been wanting to do it, wanting to say it, we just needed someone to say it first. And now that’s happened. We never expected it would be the Pope.”

And beyond all the technical discussion and analyses and debates we feel a more profound call:

Be not afraid.