(H/t Shulem Stern)
Development is about power, and the biggest threat to development today is the excessive power of the few. As five major NGO leaders set out in their recent joint call to action, “the widening gap and imbalance of power between the richest and the rest is warping the rules and policies that affect all of us in society, creating a vicious circle of ever growing and harmful undue influence. Global efforts to end poverty and marginalisation, advance women’s rights, defend the environment, protect human rights, and promote fair and dignified employment are all being undermined as a consequence of the concentration of wealth and power.”
But what can we do to take on this power? Perhaps we can learn three lessons from Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
First, we need to help make visible the hyper-concentration of power in the hands of a few, how this is impacting all that we all value in on our world, and how it doesn’t need to be this way. The dominance of societies by corporations and the very rich has become so pervasive, and so normalised, that it has been a struggle even to start to make it visible. As was said of racial segregation before the victory of the civil rights movement “Who hears a clock tick, or the surf murmur, or the train pass? Not those who live by the clock, or the sea, or the track.” That’s why the civil rights movement put so much effort into what Martin Luther King called “dramatizing a shameful condition.” They had to ensure that segregation could be visible, and be recognised as a something that could ultimately be rejected. Increasingly, today’s hyper-inequality, once effectively invisible, is recognised, and recognised as damaging. In polls, majorities in the 60 and 70-something percents in nearly all countries say that the rich have too much influence. But we still need to keep highlighting just how extreme, how harmful, today’s inequality is – not just in its economic consequences but even more importantly in how it undermines democracy and dignity – and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Second, we need the courage to set out a policy platform that really addresses the inequality of power and wealth. At Davos, elites increasingly say that they recognise that they have too much and need to have less. But when it comes to how to change things they propose a rather pathetic cocktail of social entrepreneurship, training and technology. We need to have the courage to set out an agenda that will truly shift wealth and power and help build societies where everybody matters. In a message to the World Social Forum Greek Prime Minister Tsipras defined the required policy platform as one which “defends democracy, the welfare state, public goods and the right to an adequately paying job.” Similarly, the five NGO leaders’ joint call also issued at the World Social Forum highlighted the need to “tackle tax dodging, ensure progressive taxes, provide universal free public health and education services; support workers’ bargaining power, living wages, and the redistribution of women’s unequal share of unpaid care work; and defend civil society space.” Both of these positions directly take on the policies of relentless privatisation and deregulation that have reaped so much harm, and make the case for a state that is responsible and accountable. Likewise both make the case for the strengthening of the power of workers. But these are exceptions. Most mainstream development policy discussion is weak on these areas because respectable analysts cease being respectable when they talk about them – just as Martin Luther King came to be seen as unacceptably oppositionalist by even the liberal part of establishment when he dared to challenge the Vietnam war. But he still said the unsayable, and we too all need that same courage to set out the policies that can actually shift wealth and power from the few to the many.
Third, we need an approach to how change happens that is commensurate with the scale of transformation required. We cannot shift power from elites by piling up so many reports that they gracefully give in to our intellectual prowess, nor by befriending a few officials with smooth insider lobbying, nor through the razzmatazz of celebrity-only participation and the whirr of online-only noise, nor through a naive hope in the demonstration effect of nice pilot projects. We need to build power from below. Jay Naidoo, who founded the trade union coalition which helped bring down Apartheid, is clear about how change like this is won: “It’s not about how brilliant your argument is – no one cedes power because of a great powerpoint. What matters is the balance of power between your side, the people’s side, in the confrontation and negotiations with the other side, the side of the elite. Power is built at the grassroots, down on the ground, through organising. The future belongs to whoever can rise to the challenge of organising in the twenty-first century.” ActionAid CEO Adriano Campolina describes how NGOs will need to shift their approach to programming: “They will be a combination of community organizers, people who can build alliances, people who can do a proper power analysis in a community or country, and people who can be strategists for policy change. There will also be a much stronger need for campaigning skills, but not the classic mode of campaigning — this will be campaigning with the poor, which is a mix between campaigning and community organizing.” In this too is the echo of Martin Luther King: “Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organise our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.”
The challenge of shifting wealth and power from the few to the many can seem so overwhelming that we can wonder if it can ever be won. But we’ve learnt from Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that transformative campaigns can prevail, and it seems they’ve even set out for us three steps that we can take to help bring forward the time when we shall overcome.
Over the past six months, I’ve been working with my friend and colleague Rich Gower on a report for Tearfund, the Christian development NGO, entitled The Restorative Economy: Completing our Unfinished Millennium Jubilee – and today, the report is finally published. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full report (we also have a comment piece on the Guardian today, which you’ll find here).
The process of writing this report has been especially close to my heart, and has left me at the end feeling that I want to devote much more of my energy to the massive task of movement building and values shifting that lies ahead of us. I’ve been working in and around the multilateral system for nearly a decade, and like many of my friends and colleagues in that world, have frequently felt acute frustration at the postage stamp-sized amount of political space that currently exists for solutions on the scale we need, both internationally and at home in the UK.
This report is an attempt to start thinking about what a new approach to that challenge might look like – across four chapters. The first one sets out a snapshot of where we are: in many ways a golden age for development, but one in which three huge challenges – environmental unsustainability, growing inequality, and the millions and millions of people still left behind as globalisation accelerates apace – remain ours to solve.
In chapter two, Rich and I set out the need for a different theory of influence. Many of us who work in the fight for development, justice, and sustainability have I think been feeling the limits of theories of change that rely primarily on ‘insider lobbying’. We take that here as our starting point for asking what an alternative approach might look like: one that places much more emphasis on how we build new grassroots coalitions, transform values, and tell each other much deeper stories about where we are, how we got here, where we might choose to go next, and who we really are.
Chapter three then explores the potential to discover such deeper stories in theology. All of us witnessed how the biblical idea of jubilee was able to animate a transformative civil society movement fifteen years ago, and proved powerfully resonant far beyond the church groups that formed Jubilee 2000’s core. As someone who worked in the UK government at the point when the 2005 Gleneagles summit concluded its debt relief deal, I still have to pinch myself when I remember that the average low income country’s debt fell from nearly 75% of its GDP in 2000 to just over 25% today – something that happened partly because of politicians, but much more fundamentally because of a coalition of millions of ordinary people, united by a shared story.
In this light, we argue, it’s important to remember that the once-a-generation jubilee festival described in the Old Testament was never about debt relief alone. When you go back to the original texts, as we did at some length in the course of researching this report, you find that they were also about environmental restoration. Ensuring that there was real attentiveness to enabling people living in poverty to meet their basic needs. And ensuring that concentrations of wealth did not build up from one generation to another. All three of these themes are of course fundamental to where we find ourselves today, in 2015. (And as friends working on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will already have spotted, they’re central to that agenda too.)
So in a very real sense, the work we began in 2000 – our millennium jubilee – remains a work in progress. If we can complete it, then our kids will enjoy the kind of future that I know I want for my children – Isabel, 5, and Kit, 2. And in chapter 4, Rich and I set out what we think that would look like in practice.
We argue that it starts with the changes that all of us need to make in our own lives. This is partly because of the direct impact that such changes can have, of course, but we think the main issue here is something to do with the quality of intention that movements exemplify. Wherever movements not only demand but live out the change they want to see in the world, there’s a raw power there that can exert the kind of non-linear effect on politics that progressives so urgently want to see.
But ultimately the decision about the future we want has to be made by all of us collectively, as well as each of us individually. So chapter 4 ends with a ten big ideas for far-reaching policy changes of the kind that we think have this transformative power. The ideas cover a very broad waterfront – from reforming the financial system to global climate policy, and from how we use aid internationally to how our tax system works at home.
We don’t by any means think the proposals we set out are the last word on the subject. But if they can play even just a small part in catalysing a serious conversation, among all of us, about the choices we have in what we bequeath to our kids, then I think I speak for all of Tearfund’s fabulous advocacy team, Rich, and I when I say that we’ll be more than happy with the result.
As my regular post-2015 update from the invaluable Rachel Quint at the Hewlett foundation reminded me today, there have been (at least) six separate proposals for a global partnership for development data over the last two years. The idea has a lot of fans out there, with supporters ranging from the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia (in the High Level Panel’s report), the chief statisticians of South Africa, India, Canada and Hungary (in the IEAG report), data experts in the World Bank, the UN Secretary General (in his ‘synthesis report’) and academics from institutions including the Centre for Global Development, ODI, SDSN and NYU
And so. Will there actually be a global partnership for development data? I hope so, for two reasons.
Firstly, there are the specific and practical things that a partnership could do.
These are many, but three stand out for me. The first is pretty basic. It was a source of constant frustration, while I was working on the IEAG report, to be hearing about some fantastic and inspirational initiatives to solve problems with data going on in one part of the world, while at the same time, hearing people in a different place lamenting their inability to solve the exact same problem. Something that systematically shared experiences and knowledge between countries and organisations could save time, save money, and perhaps even save lives.
A second big problem at global level is a lack of shared standards. Too much time and money is wasted reverse engineering data created in one system to make it fit another. Too much of the data from one survey can’t be combined with the data from another to add it up into something with more statistical power. Standards and protocols are being invented again and again from scratch, and huge inefficiencies are being created every day.
A third problem is data sharing. Famously, when the Ebola epidemic broke out, valuable time was wasted negotiating how data from mobile phone records could be shared and analysed to help provide the information to track the epidemic. That shouldn’t happen, but it will happen, again and again, unless public-private partnerships are worked out to share data when the next disaster hits, wherever that is.
A global partnership on data could solve real, everyday problems like these. But it would also serve a second purpose. A partnership would create something lasting out of the current excitement around data. The activities and the focus of the partnership would change over time, but just having it would make sure that data has advocates once political attention inevitably moves on to something else.
This is what global institutions do. They all operate in different ways, but the Open Government Partnership is a constant voice arguing for greater openness; GAVI will remind the world why vaccines are important even when minds are focused elsewhere; and the Global Partnership for Education is always there to speak up for the out-of-school. However constituted, a global partnership on data would be a constant voice on the global scene reminding people of the importance of better data, and galvanising resources and action to that end. If you care about better data, that has to be a good thing.
And it’s this long term commitment that will be needed to support the myriad country-level data revolutions that are at the heart of the change that is needed. These won’t happen overnight – someone has to be there for the long haul, to work with the civil society groups campaigning for open data, to link up the national statistical offices in one country who are grappling with the problems that another country solved two years ago, to show how partnerships of all the key actors: government, private sector and civil society can work together to increase both the demand for and the supply of good quality data. There are many great initiatives already underway in this area, not least the Paris21 partnership, but a bigger, more high-level global effort could coordinate and support these efforts by raising political profile, building broader relationships, and generating the kind of momentum that can really deliver results.
In a few years’ time, probably no one will care about the ‘data revolution’. But a global partnership on data could be a lasting legacy of this moment, and can be part of continuous improvements in the data on which we all depend.
What was once a storm whipped up around the question of whether the world needs 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets has now degenerated into a tempest about whether it is possible to “conservatively” tweak some of those targets to make them more meaningful and deliverable.
Last week, the poor souls who are responsible for shepherding the post-2015 negotiations (the UN ambassadors of Kenya and Ireland) released a proposal that was intended to show how this could be done.
Sadly, they have made some of the targets better rather than worse, indicating that ‘technical proofing’ – an expert-driven process supposedly stripped of political overtones – is no sure fire way to a better development agenda.
(And who on earth thought it could be? Experts disagree with each other more bitterly than governments do – fortunately they lack armies with which to settle their arguments.)
So here are five ways the tweaked targets are worse than the originals. Continue reading