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.

Labour and the vision thing

Some of my best friends are spads. But it may be that they are just not suited to leadership. Spads are great at schmoozing and PR. Some may even be good at policy. But it’s rare that at any time in their career they will need to have vision. Because that’s their bosses’ job. So it’s understandable that a Labour party that has for years been run by a cabal of ex-spads — a ‘spadocracy’ perhaps — had no vision.

So said Diane Abbott MP in yesterday’s Guardian. (‘Spads’ are special advisers, if you’re wondering: political advisers to Ministers.)

To be fair, she doesn’t acknowledge that there are some big exceptions to her rule (Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor come to mind, for instance). Or that some people who she does admire — like Jon Cruddas, one of the most visionary minds in Labour politics — may not have been spads, but have even so worked for most of their careers in and around the Party.

But these are the exceptions, I concede — and I write this as a former special adviser myself, to Hilary Benn and before him Valerie Amos at the Department for International Development.

Being a spad (or a Labour policy officer, or a researcher for an MP) is, after all, first and foremost about the art of the possible. Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman captured this nicely in a five part typology of different kinds of special adviser in his book 1 out of 10: policy wonks; spin doctors; fixers; ‘comfort blankets’; and — rarest of all — political strategists.

Special advisers who are visionaries can also discover that they fit awkwardly into government, or find themselves at the receiving end of a powerful immune response from a system predisposed to write them off as dreamers or regard them as trouble makers: look at Dominic Cummings. (It’s a similar story with civil servants: only very rarely does a visionary like John Ashton make it to the highest levels, and even then generally only in an unusual role like John’s as the Foreign Office’s climate envoy.)

All of which leads in turn to a larger question that we too often overlook: how and where progressive politics incubates and nurtures visionary thinking. Continue reading

Posted in UK

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.

5 flashing warning lights on the dashboard of the global humanitarian system

In case you hadn’t noticed, these are extraordinary times for the global emergency relief system, which has never looked more overstretched. 5 facts lifted from a new paper by my CIC colleagues Sarah Hearn and Alison Burt:

1. 76 million people now depend on the humanitarian system. A decade ago, the figure was 26 million.

2. The number of forced displaced people has more than doubled over the MDG era –  from 20 million in 1999 to more than 51 million at the end of last year.

3. The cost of global emergency assistance is now $18 billion – a more than threefold increase from the $5 billion it cost in 2000.

4. Internally displaced people now outnumber international refugees by a factor of 2 to 1 (24 million IDPs versus 12 million refugees – in 2000 it was 6 million IDPs and 12 million refugees).

5. The average displacement of a refugee now lasts for 17 years.

When we talk about ways of assisting the hardest to reach of the people living in poverty around the world, it’s often not governments or development actors but the humanitarian system that are delivering the basic services. So if the world is serious about the SDG aim of leaving no one behind, then this is where we have to start.

Back in 2005, UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland led a massive push to upgrade the humanitarian system. With next year’s World Humanitarian Summit coming up, it’s high time that the UN embarked on a similarly ambitious effort again.

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