The Global Goals – 43 countries, lots of info and some promising progress

It’s a good moment to reflect on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  In July each year, Governments come back to the United Nations in New York to report on the progress they have made at the catchily named ‘High level Political Forum’ or HLPF for short. Ok so the name might not sound that exciting but it’s a really important moment to hold Governments to account for the promises they made when they signed up to the Global Goals just 2 years ago.

Each year a different set of Goals are in the spotlight – this year it was:

  • Goal 1. No Poverty
  • Goal 2. Zero Hunger
  • Goal 3. Good Health and Wellbeing
  • Goal 5. Gender Equality
  • Goal 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • Goal 14. Life below Water

These reviews are voluntary so there is absolutely no obligation on countries to report. Nevertheless, this year 43 countries signed themselves up (which in addition to the 22 from last year brings us up to 65 )– not bad given we’re only two years in.  The other challenge is that there is still no consistent reporting format so it’s difficult to actually compare countries. There is a huge amount of information on the HLPF website. However,  it can be a frustrating progress to figure out what is actually going on and get beneath the jargon. So, having just returned from the HLPF, here’s 5 things that jumped out at me:

  1. We should be optimistic about progress 

It’s easy to feel down about the state of the world what with the cataclysmic political changes of the last few years. There are many naysayers who think we simply can’t achieve the aspirations of the Global Goals. But there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Each year the UN releases a progress report to coincide with the HLPF. It highlights some of those reasons for optimism – from the fact that extreme poverty and the number of children dying from preventable diseases have halved in a generation to increased access to clean fuels and technology . As the brilliant Nick Kristof has pointed out, that means that every day

  • Another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty
  • 300,000 people gain access to electricity
  • and 285,000 get their first access to drinking water.

That’s pretty amazing right?

2.  There’s some pretty cool stuff happening nationally:

As well as the big picture, there is some impressive stuff happening on the ground. You can read every country’s review on the UN Website and if you’re a bit of a policy wonk there’s lots to dig into. Here’s a few things that caught my eye both from the HLPF and other things announced this year:

  • Innovative policy solutions to fight poverty: like India’s huge financial inclusion programme which has already reached over 300 million people. Or how about the installation in Nairobi of water ATMs enabling city dwellers to pay for water using mobile technology.
  • Donors stepping up: at the HLPF, Japan announced it would commit US$1 billion in aid in by 2018, and this year Germany became one of the few countries to meet the UN’s 0.7% aid target
  • Action on women’s empowerment: This year Canada unveiled what it called its first feminist international-assistance policy to ensure that at least 95% of the country’s aid will help improve the lives of women and girls. There’s also progress on getting more women into politics. In Kenya the High Court has ruled that at least one third of parliamentarians must be women. Let’s see what happens in this month’s election. And even though we have a long way to go in the UK the fact that we now have more women MPs than ever is a great step forward.
  • Countries are taking SDG implementation seriously: On the wonkier side many countries are really prioritising SDG implementation from Nigeria’s appointment of a presidential adviser on the SDGs to the Netherlands establishment of a high-level working group with representatives from each Ministry.

3. Leave No One Behind is getting a bit well ‘left behind’:

The commitment to Leave No One Behind was one of the most ground-breaking elements of the Global Goals. Yet whilst this was the theme of last year’s HLPF there is no stipulation to report on this. There were some countries who did emphasise the importance of this agenda like Botswana who spoke about their flagship poverty eradication programme. Civil society is also trying valiantly to keep a spotlight on the issue – including  through the Leave No One Behind partnership which Project Everyone is part of. But more needs to happen and countries should be obligated to include a report back on this element each year

4. We need better data

Data was a big topic at this year’s HLPF and whilst there’s lots of great work in this area like the work being carried out by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data we need to step up the pace as the SDG progress reports. After all, if we don’t know what’s happening we can’t address the gaps or maximise the opportunities.

5. The Goals really are for everyone:

As mentioned, this year 43 countries reported to the UN on progress. They ranged from the rich like Denmark to some of the poorest like Afghanistan. From tiny states like Monaco to giants like Nigeria. The breadth of countries reflects the universality of the agenda. And for the richer countries – this isn’t just about what they do as donors (although this is clearly important) but also reporting on their own progress to achieving the Goals. That’s because the fight against inequality and environmental damage is relevant wherever you live. The only way we can defeat them is together.

So what’s next?

2030 is not that far off – in fact we’ve got about 1000 days till we hit the 5 year mark of 2020 and as the UN has emphasised we need to ramp up action if we’re going to have any chance of reaching those targets. It’s important that we continue to join forces – governments, business, civil society, the UN – to keep the pressure up.

For our part, Project Everyone is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to bring together leaders from around the world (young and a bit older!) during the UN General Assembly for a new event called Goalkeepers. The aim is to put a spotlight on progress, delve into what needs to happen next and help galvanize action towards the Goals.

Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – HLPF side event

Every time I read the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, I am struck again by the magnitude of the task of delivering them. The agenda hails itself as “supremely ambitious and transformational,” which is all well and good, but only if there is equivalent ambition in implementation.

At the Center on International Cooperation, our focus is on the targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies – not just those in SDG16, but in all Sustainable Development Goals.

We started with violence against children, helping create the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. With the partnership, we contributed to the INSPIRE strategies, the first time the international community has united behind clear recommendations to policymakers on how these forms of violence can be prevented.

Over the past year, we have supported the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners that has been convened by the governments of Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Switzerland.

Based on existing country leadership and best practice, the Pathfinders have developed a roadmap for 36 targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). For the first time, this tracks a way forward for turning the ambition of the SDG targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies into reality.

You can read the roadmap here.

Today, the draft roadmap was presented at a side event at the High-level Political Forum in New York. Here’s what the UN Deputy-Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, had to say about the roadmap:

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The roadmap proposes three cross-cutting strategies:

  • Invest in prevention so that all societies and people reach their full potential.
  • Transform institutions so that they can meet aspirations for a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.
  • Include and empower people so that they can fulfill their potential to work for a better future.

It sets out nine catalytic actions: on violence against women, children and vulnerable groups, building safer cities, prevention for the most vulnerable countries, access to justice, legal identity, tackling corruption and illicit flows, open government, empowering people as agents of change, and respecting rights and promoting gender equality. around a common agenda.

The roadmap is the result of an extensive process of consultation and debate, and will be finalized in the coming weeks. We will then launch it in September, at the High-level week of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly.

The Pathfinders will then continue their work as a platform for action. The group will not displace existing activity, but will act as a ‘docking station’, bringing partners from across the world together around a shared vision.

The focus is on the High-level Political Forum in 2019, when Presidents and Prime Ministers will gather for a summit on the 2030 Agenda and ask ‘what have you achieved over the past four years?’

Will we have a good answer to that question?

The State of the World: A Report Card on International Cooperation

Guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations

Last week the Council of Councils, a global network of think tanks, released its third annual Report Card on International Cooperation and the results are not pretty. The Report Card, which surveys the heads of member think tanks to evaluate the world’s performance on ten of the most important transnational challenges, found that global efforts earned a barely passing C-, a steep drop from the B earned last year. Moreover, across the ten issue areas that the Report Card covers, only one – combatting transnational terrorism – registered an improvement over 2016.

Few who pay even passing attention to global affairs will find the results surprising. The past year saw some of the most significant shocks to international cooperation since the end of the Cold War. After Brexiteers narrowly beat out Remainers in the United Kingdom, Americans voted Donald Trump into office. The scandalous longshot in a crowded field of Republican candidates, Trump made a number of campaign pledges to withdraw the United States from international entanglements that he viewed as unfair and incompatible with his vision of ‘America First.’

Echoes of this isolationist call have been felt in subsequent elections, most recently in Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency. And while liberal candidates prevailed over nativist calls this year in France and the Netherlands, there’s reason to believe that populism, far from being beaten back, has merely reached what the New York Times recently called “an awkward adolescence,” too small to win elections, yet large enough to disrupt national politics.

This matters all the more so because many of the world’s most pressing challenges cannot be stopped by borders. As the Report Card notes:

Around the world, a surge of populist nationalism poses a political challenge to globalization and calls into question continued support for multilateral institutions. At the same time, many of the most important challenges confronting governments and citizens – from economic shocks to climate change to infectious disease – are inherently transnational, crossing borders that leaders have vowed to reinforce.

Digging deeper into the ten issue areas, the Report Card reveals more pessimism. Once again, the Report Card reserves some of its poorest grades for international efforts to prevent and respond to violent conflict. Though the Report Card identifies conflict management as a high priority going forward, it is not expecting to see opportunities for breakthrough this year. In contrast, the areas that scored highest marks – mitigating and adapting to climate change, promoting global health, advancing development – were all seen as relatively lower priority areas for policymakers. In short, according to the Report Card there is little expectation for progress on important issues, where the world is already underperforming. And while there is hope for progress in areas already performing relatively better, these gains matter less.

Two issue areas – combatting transnational terrorism and promoting global trade – buck this trend in opposing directions. Despite scoring a middling grade for performance in 2016, international efforts to combat transnational terrorism ranked as both a high priority for policymakers and the top area where the Report Card expected to register progress this year as the international coalition fighting the Islamic State has rolled back significant swaths of the group’s territorial control.

Efforts to promote global trade, in contrast, received some of the Report Card’s poorest marks, as major mega-regional trade agreements failed, and the Council of Councils ranked trade as a low priority, in part because it did not see any hope for progress this year. In an environment of continued anti-trade rhetoric, the most that may be expected is that the world can avoid worst outcomes – a China-U.S. trade war, the collapse of NAFTA, orderly Brexit negotiations – but this is a low bar indeed.

To learn more about how events over the last year have shaped expectations for international cooperation in 2017, visit the Report Card on International Cooperation.

Elites claim we’ve persuaded them to fight inequality, but it’s only activism that can make them do it

The words we never thought they’d say have recently turned from a trickle into a mighty river. The very building block of any decent society, commitment to reduce inequality, which governments had rejected for decades, has now become the cornerstone of official policy. We in civil society pinched ourselves when the IMF started saying it. This week even the G7 – yes, them – have joined them. Has our dream come true?

Both wings of the rivalrous South African government now say that they are focused on tackling inequality; elite opinion-leaders from the FT to Davos regularly beat the anti-inequality drum; the European Union says reducing inequality is key to its own and global harmony; Indonesia’s President says it’s his top priority; even the world’s richest men highlight rising inequality as a threat to stability and progress. New French President Macron declared at his inauguration that social division has driven extremism, and that to heal the divisions the government must fight inequality.

That such statements would be made was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. And yet government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. Try listing every country that has signed up to fight inequality under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and you will run out of breath. Try counting every government taking the action that ensures a markedly more equal society within their term of office, and you won’t need to use more than one hand. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery.

This is partly because the current crop of world leaders are a poor imitation of better days. At a recent pan-Africa feminist meeting I attended, no one there felt they could name any current leader who matched Sankara, Mandela, Lumumba or Machel. And in the North, well, let’s just say that Americans have started saying they miss George W Bush. Yes – him. Our leaders will not lead us. But it is also because even when leaders are more inclined to change they cannot act without the wind at their back that civil society can give them. Remember how President Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King “I know what I have to do, but you have make me do it.” Politicians are currently under so much pressure from the ever more powerful 1% that, if they are well-intentioned, they need our pressure. And if they are not, well, we need to pressure them even more.

As a person who came from the mainstream NGO advocacy tradition, part of my own journey has been one of unlearning, of realising that the most important change isn’t brought by the professionals but by the amateurs. As friends from Kibera who stopped a slum eviction told me when I asked them how they did it, “we have no other home to go to.” Former Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “we’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.”

This is why, in the #fightinequality alliance I am part of, we do less “lobbying” and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to us, it will be fought for by us.

The leaders are there – but they are not in government. My hope these days comes from young civil society leaders like Aya Chebbi from Tunisia who was part of the Tunisian revolution and is now challenging the IMF restructuring of her country; Lamin Saidykhan who helped found Gambia Has Decided which toppled Jammeh and now leads support for youth activism to fight inequality across Africa; Brian Matyila who helps lead Fees Must Fall and also fights for LGBT rights; and Brazilian youth activist Lira Alli challenging austerity. Through the #fightinequality alliance they are learning from, and teaching, leaders who have led struggles for decades like Anti-Apartheid activist Jay Naidoo who hosted the first global #fightinequality gathering and Filipino debt campaigner Lidy Nacpil who hosted the second. Change is always collective, never individual, and the folks I’ve just mentioned would modestly point instead to other names. This is great – we are leaderful. I list these few to say that if we are looking for leaders, we will find them – but it is more likely nowadays we will find them active on the ground and not in the corridors of power.

Despite the claims of the elites that we have persuaded them to fight inequality, we are in a period that in the short term will likely see it get worse. In many respects, we have entered a dark tunnel, but it is one we will get through, and it is the fire of courage of activists which will light the way. The social movements who constitute the #fightinequality alliance have been out on the streets in the Philippines, Brazil, South Africa, the US and elsewhere challenging the policies which favour the 1% and hurt the rest. Together social movements are building a collective power that can shift power. And when that starts to happen, we really will have won.

Meeting Martin McGuinness

“Ben, Martin, I have to introduce you to each other,” said an Irish writer who knew us both.

It was Dublin March 2016, and we were there to commemorate Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising against British imperial rule. I, an Englishman with what friends tell me is the most English accent ever, was there as a descendant of 1916 Irish rebel leader, Padraig Pearse; Martin McGuinness, former Provisional IRA man, was there as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK.

As a student of history, follower of politics and staunch supporter of the Peace Process I had become, from a distance, and intellectually only, an admirer of Martin McGuiness. He’d ended a war and was central to the new Northern Ireland of inclusivity and progress. He was a super smart politician. Tony Blair once shared at a talk I attended about how in the Peace Process he’d come to like Irish Republican leaders Adams and McGuinness “almost too much”.

And yet I remain an Englishman, steeped in the culture and conversations of my people. To many in England, including amongst those closest to me, McGuinness remained a hate figure, a Bogeyman. In any conversations in which I contextualised what had happened in Northern Ireland I was told back: “no, no, he’s a terrorist, nothing justifies it, nothing.” “But I’m not justifying it, I’m …” “No, no, stop. He’s a terrorist.” And the brutality of the conflict, of which he was a central part, was truly horrific. I strongly opposed the paramilitarism he embodied. Not only did I understand why he personally filled so many with dread, I felt some of it myself. And I felt it surge in me at the very moment we met.

We started talking about the beautiful service of remembrance that had just taken place, what it meant for the elderly relatives. Then we talked about the events being commemorated. I said, as if in challenge, “it wasn’t just about nationalism, it was about a society where all were cherished equally.” “Oh yes yes,” he replied, “that’s what inspires me most about it, how progressive it was: it was 1916 Ireland, and their proclamation begins ‘Irish men and Irish women.’ We’ve still a lot to do on that score.” “Ben is a descendant of Pearse,” our mutual friend shared. “Oh I love his poetry,” McGuinness replied.

He seemed to be doing too well at being gentle and charming, and I worried that I was letting down my English folk, perhaps even my own English self. “I’m English,” I said, “as you can hear from my accent. Pearse’s sister, my great-grandmother, married an Englishman, and we’ve been English ever since.” I smiled in challenge to see his response. “Oh there’s nothing wrong with being English. One of my nieces came to me and said ‘Uncle I’m going to marry an Englishman’ and she waited for my reaction and I said ‘is he a good Englishman?'” And he laughed. And I couldn’t help laugh back.

He asked me about my life as a development worker and shared what he’d learnt from South Africa. He asked me to get in touch if he could ever help my work.

Martin McGuinness had shaken hands with the Queen and made a friendship with the firebrand Protestant Ian Paisley, so befriending an English descendant of an Irish rebel was nothing compared to that. But in my case it was a private conversation with a person irrelevant to political gain and from which he could have extracted himself with ease. And yet he chose not to. Making peace can be the smartest strategy, the best calculation, and it is clear that the strategy he chose was a smart one and that he had especially acute political nous. But that day we met I couldn’t put it all down to that. For all the contradictions of any life, and he was clear that his had been one of both light and dark, it seemed he really was, deeply, a man who sought peace, and his achievement in bringing it was not only political but personal. And it taught me that even our Bogeymen, perhaps especially our Bogeymen, can be our teachers, and that we can learn not only to love our enemies but even to like them. May Martin rest in peace.

Scotland and our movement moment

This weekend was the inaugural Adam Smith Festival of Ideas in Kirkcaldy and I was asked to speak about how Scotland could change the world in the years ahead. This is what I said.

Our world needs movements – and movements need Scots

I want to tell you a story about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we could go. A story about the Scotland we could become – if we first understand who we are.

I came of age politically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the highpoint of a global order based on shared rules and human rights. From the Arms Trade Treaty to the responsibility to protect doctrine to the cancellation of third world debt, I got kind of used to the uninterrupted march of global justice.

And then the darkness descended.

Just take the last three years.

2015 was the year of the refugee, with global refugee figures reaching their highest point since World War Two.

2016 was the year of populism, with surging support for nativist political forces across the Western world.

2017 is set to be the year of famine, with more than 20 million people at risk of starvation across Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia in the worst crisis of its sort in more than three decades.

Something has gone very very wrong and I’m here today to ask you to join me in helping to put it right. My argument today is three fold.

Firstly, that this particular moment in history is a ‘movement moment’ – it demands of us a willingness to join movements in unprecedented numbers, because the problems cannot be fixed by politicians, public policy or public institutions alone.

Secondly, my argument is that Scots in particular have special responsibilities here, because we believe in cooperation not only in our communities and in our country, but across the world. And thirdly that Scots not only have a duty to be involved in global justice movements, but actually have a very distinctive contribution to make, by virtue of the quirks of our historical experience.

A movement moment

Let me begin by saying a bit more about where we are, and why I think this is a movement moment.

By day I work at Save the Children and each day I try to remind myself of the good we have done together. Since 1990, we have halved the number of children dying before their fifth birthday. Anybody who has ever suffered any form of bereavement knows that each loss is shattering, leaving a hole in a family that can never be filled. That we have halved the number of families experiencing the depths of that sorrow is a good reason to get up in the morning. And if you’ve ever given to an international charity like Save the Children, or happily pay your taxes and support that money being spent on aid, then these are your achievements and you can be very very proud.

But at the same time I cannot say, hand on heart, that I am optimistic about the way the world is moving. I despair every time we release a new report charting the catastrophic failure to protect the children of Syria. Last week we published a report in which a child said “when friends die my chest hurts and I can’t breathe so I sit alone because I don’t want to scream at anyone”. These are words that no child anywhere should say.

In the report before that parents in a besieged area of Syria told us what it was like to raise children in a town where all the doctors had fled or been killed. They had resorted to taking their little ones to the vet when they got sick.

All across the world, from Paris to Mosul, ordinary families are terrorised by extremists and a medieval barbarism is encouraging people to target and torture those who disagree.

Meanwhile here at home the mood has soured and something ugly and sinister is on the march. Jewish friends receive abuse from the swamps of history, Muslim friends report a surge in the most vulgar and blatant Islamophobia, while my friend Jo Cox was murdered doing her job.

Behind all these trends is the same basic story: frightened and frightening people are obsessing about what divides us. We have lost the art of seeing each person as precious and unique, as an irreplaceable and perfect version of themselves, without whom our world would be irrevocably impoverished.

None of these are problems which politicians, however honourable or gifted, can be expected to solve on their own. If we want a different kind of Scotland, Britain or world, we’re going to have to get involved.

For me movement thinking is exactly what we need now because we live in what I call a 3D world – a world characterised by distrust, division and disruption.

Distrust, of both the motivations and the competence of institutions. Division, between people of different backgrounds and opinions. And disruption, of old ways of thinking, doing and being. Those 3Ds all add up to people feeling overwhelmed and alone, and movements hold out the prospects of an answer.

A movement can be the answer to distrust – because movements are strengthened by their perceived authenticity. And it can be the answer to division, because by definition movements involve more than one person (there’s never been a movement of one). And it can be the answer to disruption, because movements are defined by being for change, but giving us the sense that we’re more in control of which change we choose.

This word movement gets bandied around a lot at the moment, so I want to be really clear about what I mean by it. To me a movement is not the same thing as an organisation. To me a movement is a tribe – a really, really big tribe, but a tribe nonetheless – which coalesces around a shared view of how the world could be and which commits not simply to taking one action but instead to a lifetime of service to an ideal.

My friend Alex Evans has just published a book in which he quotes an American organiser as saying ‘what makes a movement is simply enough people feeling part of it – sensing a shared culture, and forcing those watching to take note and take sides’.

That seems about right to me, because movements do force us to take sides, and decide where we stand on the big moral questions of the day. This isn’t a new thing – we’ve had movements for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage and for civil rights. But just because we’re sympathetic to the most famous movements, we shouldn’t assume that movements are always the good guys. There’s a global far right movement too. And a global jihadi one.

So there’s nothing new about movement thinking, and nothing inherently honourable about it either. But my argument today is that there is nonetheless something about it which makes it uniquely well suited to the demands of the hour.

Scots as movement-builders

So why am I talking about this here in Scotland, and suggesting that Scots have a special obligation to fight hatreds which seem so much bigger than us, so big in fact that they could overwhelm the world? My answer is a simple one: Scots have a calling now, because we know better than anybody that none of us have to be put in boxes not of our choosing.

For three centuries we have been simultaneously Scottish and British and there are plenty of people who want to campaign for us to be Scottish and European. The fluidity of our identity is why we can talk of people being Scottish by birth, choice or aspiration – because we have long accepted that there’s nothing binary or closed about being a Scot.

And so my second argument today is that there is such a thing as Scottishness and that it leaves us well placed to be the movement builders that this movement moment demands of us.

The nature of Scottishness has obviously been a source of some controversy, so let me share a little about where I’m coming from.

Given the mesmerising range of choice – the grandeur of our Munros, the mysteries and histories of our lochs and the breathtaking beauty of our islands and our glens, it might surprise a visitor to Scotland to know that two of my favourite sights here are stones. They are both small, both plain and both can be seen within an hour of where we are now.

The first is the one bearing a circular inscription on the floor of the National Museum in Edinburgh, the one which says ‘Scotland to the world to Scotland’. The motto is chiseled in a circle so that, depending on how you look at it, it either says ‘Scotland to the world’ or ‘the world to Scotland’.

The second is embedded in the wall of St Giles’ Cathedral and says simply ‘Thank God for James Young Simpson’s discovery of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847’.

It seems to me that it is in these two small slabs – even more than in our poetry, plays, novels, songs or political speeches – you find the essence of the Scottish national character.

In the National Museum stone, you learn of our sense of Scotland the Good Samaritan, unwilling to pass by on the other side. There is much to be proud of here, from the disproportionate numbers of Scottish volunteers in the International Brigades to the phenomenal demonstration of people power on the eve of the 2005 Make Poverty History summit in Gleneagles. Whatever our views on the constitutional question, we can be proud that both nationalists and unionists, Yes and No supporters are united in their support for Scotland fulfilling our obligations to those beyond our borders who need our help.

In the St Giles’ Cathedral stone, you see a very Scottish combination of intense pride in our temporal talents, combined with a beautifully understated trust in providence, and a reminder not to get too cocky – it’s all very well being the most inventive people on the face of the earth, but don’t go thinking you did it on your own. The reason I love this stone so much is because it really encapsulates what I feel about my obligations as a campaigner – life isn’t about being ‘nice’, about having good intentions but not a real strategy for change. On the contrary – life is really about each of us straining to fulfil our potential so that the talents of each of us are used for the benefit of all of us. Our time on earth is supposed to be a succession of periods of hard thinking followed by periods of hard work.

We don’t have a Scots word or phrase that describes precisely this mix of social duty and determination to apply rigorous thinking to big problems, and the best I’ve come up with is ‘strategic service’.

I should say at this point that I don’t consider these national traits of ours an unalloyed good. The same overwhelming sense of obligation which can lead us to great acts of courage and self-sacrifice can tip all too readily in to an oppressive puritanism and self-righteousness. So I’m not suggesting here that Scots are superior to other peoples, just that we’re not entirely in the wrong when we ask ‘wha’s like us? Damn few’.

Movement thinking

So my second argument today is that to be a Scot is to have a particular take on the world, bound up in our sense of connectedness to other peoples and also in our obligation to give the best service it is in our power to give. It is for historians and anthropologists to tell us how we came to be this way, and for the philosophers to tell us if the downsides I have just described are a price worth paying for our gifts, but for our purposes today I hope we can take it as a starting point that there is something real about Scottishness, and our cultural distinctiveness is to be found somewhere in this area.

My third and final argument is that – if I am right, and our world needs movements and, if I am right that Scottishness is characterised both by its richness as a porous identity and by its internationalism and sense of strategic service, then Scots have a particular contribution to make to building movements in the years ahead.

Let me just say a little about what that would look like.

Firstly, great movements don’t buy great man theories of history. That doesn’t mean movements are leaderless – it means they are leaderful. Just think about Black Lives Matter, or the women’s marches on the inauguration weekend, or the refugees welcome movement. I don’t know who is in charge of any of these things, because nobody is in charge of these things. They are full of leaders, people who identify themselves through action.

And that brings me to my second point about movements. Movements are only as good as the activism they inspire and that should be our aim – providing inspiration, not giving orders. Brilliant movement builders rally people around a vision and then let people decide how they are going to contribute, creating the space for a whole range of creative tactics to emerge.

If we take a look at just the refugees welcome idea for a minute, it is clear that no one person could have come up with the range of activities people have done. Let me be clear here – I’m incredibly proud of Scotland’s response to the refugee crisis, just as I want to celebrate the contribution of communities across the UK. But I’m not naive – my point is not to suggest that everybody is welcoming or that Scots are inherently more progressive on these questions than folk down South.

But I do want to look at how people in Scotland were able to link up with a wider movement in a way that should make us all proud.

To take just two examples. How brilliant that ordinary folk from Glasgow set up Refuweegee, a charity which offers new arrivals to the city not just essentials like toiletries and nappies, but ‘letters fae the locals’ introducing what we love about our city and explaining treats like In Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes.

Or when Syrian families were first resettled in Bute, how amazing that locals went to speak to the church about giving a space for Friday prayers and to the local co-op about making sure they had halal meat for sale.

All of these things were just people finding different ways to contribute, the same way a QC in London decided to set up the billable hour campaign where he encouraged all his pals from chambers, and then all the solicitors they worked with, to each give what they would bill in an hour to Save the Children’s child refugee appeal. All at the same time as Belle and Sebastian decided to put on a gig for us, and Caitlin Moran organised a single, and a member of the public set up a petition which ended up forcing David Cameron to agree to take 20 thousand Syrian refugees, while another ordinary woman invited a few of her friends on Facebook to a protest and ended up leading a march of 10 thousand people through London.

There wasn’t a mastermind behind all of these things – but there was a movement, and the movement is delivering real change, right now.

And here’s the final point I want to leave you with, and it brings us full circle as to why we’re talking about this in Scotland. Being a movement builder means connecting with people on the very deepest level of their values and their identity. Something can have mass participation and still not be a movement – after all nobody says they are part of the movement for iphones, or converse shoes or AirBnB. These communities are all massive, but they are just organised around things we use, they don’t represent who we are.

Likewise even if we feel a very strong attachment to one political party or one charity, our loyalty to the movement of which it is part tends to run even deeper. Nobody has a twitter bio saying ‘supporter of the Fawcett Society’ – we say feminist. We don’t say ‘Hope not Hate donor’ – we say anti-fascist. And we don’t say ‘Amnesty member’, we say human rights defender.

And that, of course, is the same idea we started with. My experience of being Scottish – in part I am sure because it’s been an experience of being Scottish and British, not Scottish or British – has made me feel incredibly comfortable with the idea that I’m part of more than one community of action, of mutual obligation, and of identity.

Movement thinking is a new buzz phrase around the world, but it’s actually something Scots do instinctively, because whether we like it or not, duality is part of who we are. There will be plenty of people here – and there are certainly plenty of people among my own nearest and dearest – who want another referendum, and will use it as a chance to vote for independence.

It isn’t my place to pass judgement on that one way or another today. But I hope it is my place to ask you to weigh very carefully whether the rich, multi-layered nature of Scottish identity is something you value and, if it is, whether you’re prepared to put that special perspective to good use in this movement moment.

Over the course of this weekend and in the months and years to come the status of Scotland in the Union will no doubt continue to dominate. But if that is all we talk about I fear we are missing the chance to make our mark on questions of truly global and historical significance.

Scotland’s national question is a complex one, but my argument today is simple: our broken world needs movements, movements need Jock Tamson’s Bairns and they need us now.

Austerity economics has just been smashed. By the IMF.

A powerful new report finally kills off any remaining intellectual veil for a broken economics that is breaking society.

Sometimes an ideology is so brilliantly propagated that observers might not even notice it’s an ideology. In the corridors of power and in mainstream discussion, it ceases to be questioned. Then it goes catastrophically wrong. And it begins to seen again for the ideology it is. It becomes questioned again. And, if they are smart, leaders hear this and start to self-correct. This is where we’ve got to with neoliberalism, austerity, and rising inequality. Except for the self-correct part. Right now, instead of self-correction, we’re seeing many mainstream politicians unable to shift away from dead economics, and what seems in too many countries like the start of social breakdown. Change is well overdue. Who can prompt leaders to drop the old economic nostrums that are causing so much harm?

Enter the IMF with a sledgehammer. Progressives duck in case in the sledgehammer is meant for them. But then the IMF demolishes the case for neoliberalism and austerity. It sounds extraordinary, and it is.

Today the IMF will launch a new report, “Macro-Structural Policies and Income Inequality in Low-Income Developing Countries”, the latest in series that mark the intellectual journey the IMF research department has been travelling in recent years. Packed with detailed quantitative analysis it demonstrates that much of what elites have been advancing as unquestioned economics is demonstrably harmful both to economic growth and to public wellbeing.

Of course what makes this surprising, and what may make some progressives unenthusiastic about welcoming this, is also what makes it so powerful: an institution that has been, for far too long, a defender of the free market story and the Washington Consensus – the idea that liberalizing trade, privatizing everything possible and cutting down public spending was a one-size-fits-all solution to any government in trouble – has now refuted it.

This paper is not the first by the IMF to take a stand on inequality, but it is notable because it claims in no uncertain terms that public spending – i.e. the opposite of the budget cuts that it once advocated for – decreases income inequality. They even have a formula – a 1% increase in public spending, they report, leads to a 2.3 decrease in inequality after 5 years.

The paper also takes a strong stand against prioritizing indirect taxes, such as VAT, showing that they increase inequality.

The paper not only demolishes neoliberal economics but also helps build the evidence base around the kinds of policies that are necessary to reduce inequality. Those include some of the things that NGOs like ActionAid have been talking about: emphasizing direct taxes instead of indirect taxes, spending on social services (this paper focuses on infrastructure, but we would see that more broadly), support for cash transfer programmes, and the need to ensure that any programs that are likely to increase inequality are offset by measures to decrease inequality.

Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model. And now, in countries around the world, the lack of action in inequality is leading to a resurgence of xenophobic nationalism and the far right. Broken economics is breaking society. But too many leaders still seem trapped in the belief that there is no alternative. So let them know that today the IMF – yes, the IMF – has comprehensively set out why that broken economics must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

 

 

Update: The IMF report is now online here