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.

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 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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

The end of the defence of widening inequality, and the beginnings of a coalition to address it

Were it not for the amusing stunts mocking the G7 leaders, the world might not even know the G7 was happening. (What they most fear, I reckon, is that people stop mocking them. Imagine the indignity!) We’re witnessing not just the decline of the old powers but the decline of politics as summitry, back to a longer term agenda of movements beyond moments. By next month, people won’t be talking much about the Bavarian G7. But they will be talking next month, and next year, about the biggest challenge the world faces: inequality.

Yesterday’s heresy is today’s orthodoxy: inequality is harming economic and social progress, and has gotten out of hand. There was a time, not too long ago, when talk of inequality risked being seen as a bit too radical even in the safe space of NGO-land. Now tackling inequality is the mantra of the OECD. And the IMF. Even the World Economic Forum. Governments who have let inequality rise can now be heard declaring that fixing it must be the top priority. South Africa’s Deputy President, the billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa who had been seen as the prime exemplar of the ANC’s amnesia of its egalitarian history, now leads its efforts to put tackling inequality very publicly back in its agenda. Nigeria’s outgoing Finance Minister, the veteran World-Banker and market economy icon Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, declared over the weekend that Nigeria’s challenge is the divide between “the 99.9% and a venal, kleptocratic, power-hungry elite that have colonised the country and refuse to let go.” (In an interview in the FT!) Academia has dumped the old religion and is churning out so many books on inequality that they risk speeding up even further the worrying depletion of the world’s forests.

But whilst the need to tackle inequality is now the new orthodoxy of word, it is not yet practiced in deed. 7 out of 10 people now live in countries where inequality is increasing. Asked to give examples of countries that are successfully tackling inequality, we all keep coming back to Latin America: why no such progress in Africa, Asia or Europe? Let us be frank and say it is not “an absence of political will” to narrow inequality but is instead the overwhelming presence of a different political will to widen inequality further. Governments and international institutions are talking equality and practising inequality. The drive to increase inequality is the project that dare not speak its name.

Still, we can celebrate that the defence of ever-widening inequality has become socially unacceptable. This is a journey, and that is a milestone.

We are starting to witness, too, another milestone. We have seen for a while organisations individually raising the issue of inequality, while staying in their silos and failing to join hands. Now they are starting, gingerly, to link up on this very issue: Development NGOs like ActionAid and Oxfam with environment NGOs like Greenpeace; INGOs connecting beyond their comfort zone of groups like them, by linking up with broad civil society networks like Civicus and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development; and these groups at last again linking up with the trade unions. Different streams coming together into what will need to be a mighty river. These groups have sketched out a policy agenda, and a theory of change agenda, that addresses structural issues and recognises that this a long game, a movement beyond moments. As the International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow recently summarised the vision that all these groups have united behind, it is one that “includes progressive taxes, universal free public health and education services, living wages, strengthening of workers’ bargaining power, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, working in a way that strengthens the power of the people to challenge the people with power.” The groups are, in her words, “working ever more closely.” These are embryonic days, a while away yet from a formal bells-and-whistles coalition. But it has begun. What should come next? That’s a chapter not yet written – but where we once asked “will it ever?” we now ask “when?” This year marks the end of the defence of widening inequality, and the beginnings of a coalition to address it.

BRICS in Africa – challenging the old order or consolidating it?

Arriving in Maputo last week I came across what has become a familiar sight in African airports: I don’t mean the big groups of Chinese businesspeople and officials passing through immigration, I mean the smaller groups of Europeans who mope about their own displacement, and whose look of despair grows ever more gaunt as they fail to get any sympathy. Observing the self-pity you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

Are the old powers being felled by the new? Has the glass ceiling of Northern domination been cracked by the BRICS – the “emerging” (now emerged) powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. If so, then amongst the Southern civil society representatives who met in Maputo last week, this challenge to the old order could not come a moment too soon. Their message was clear: we come not to mourn the G7-led world, but to bury it. There was celebration at the breaking of the monopoly that the old powers held, and excitement at the possibilities of South-South cooperation. But there were also worries at how in too many cases the lived reality of the BRICS in Africa for people had diverged so far from the promise.

BRICS are a work in progress. There is very little institutional solidity to the BRICS right now – their first intergovernmental institution, the BRICS bank, has just named its President and has not yet lent a penny. Very few people, if any, can be said to have been impacted by a “BRICS” decision. But civil society organisations have witnessed the impact of the BRICS in Africa, and sense where things are heading – and have reasons for cheers and for fears.

A story told about a bus: One day a bus was driving in the pouring rain, and as it drove towards its next stop, the people inside the bus, said ‘Don’t stop, if you let those people on it will be cramped and they will get us dirty.’ But the people at the bus stop called out ‘Please stop, we are cold and wet, and there is room enough for all.’ The bus stopped and the people got on, but when they got to the next stop there were more people asking to get on and those same people who had just got on said of those outside, ‘Don’t stop, if you let them on it will be cramped and they will get us dirty.’ Are the BRICS challenging the old G7 elite, so that all countries can get on the bus, or are they joining to form a new elite that will keep others off the bus and in the rain?

What will be the character of the relationships between BRICS countries and poorer developing countries: respect, or domination? To the BRICS bank pledge that it will be client-centred, people asked “who is the client?” A participant summed up the impact of a mining project in her locality that is backed by a number of BRICS countries: “Poisoned water. Poisoned air. Forced displacement. Abuse of workers. Non-payment of taxes. A crack down on protest.” She asked: “Is this South-South? Is this cooperation?” There were other, positive, stories too – of projects supporting family farming and genuine technology transfer. These different examples provided an opportunity for participants to sketch out both their no and their yes. Yes to investment, no to landgrabbing. Yes to welcoming companies, no to accepting tax avoidance. Yes to growth, no to dangerously widening inequality. Yes to agreements reached by consent, no to force. Yes to getting rid of the old elite, no to a new elite. Yes to the Bandung Conference of 1955, no to the Berlin Conference of 1884-5.

The most important solidarity, it was said, is between people. A couple of weeks ago in Brazil, members of the landless movement told me about how they had been right to celebrate when Lula swept into the Presidency, but wrong to assume that all that mattered was who was in power. The work of civil society in challenging the powerful must go on whoever the powerful are and wherever they are from. Last week’s meeting in Maputo reaffirmed that truth for international engagement too.

A key aspect of the discussions was the need to go beyond making policy recommendations to the BRICS. Emphasis was placed on self-determination. No one – from the West, the East, the North, or the South – is coming to save anyone. BRICS do represent a challenge to the old order but the economic logic they represent is similar. The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few will not be undermined by the rise of the BRICS, but it can be challenged by citizens. Communities need to set out, together: What is the development we want? How do we strengthen our power? So that whoever comes, from wherever, will see that guests are welcome but exploitation will be difficult to get away with. As the defeat of colonialism showed, the power of the people is stronger than the people in power.