The awkward squad – why development depends on dialogue and dissent.
This article was first published by Vice-Versa, in Dutch, here.
Hundreds of thousands of children who can now go to school in Kenya; millions of people with HIV in South Africa who now have access to life-saving medicines; hundreds of millions of people in rural India who now have access to a hundred days of paid manual work to protect them from hunger; billions of women around the world who can now vote. What do all these advances have in common?
All of them were secured by citizens standing up for their rights and holding governments to account. All faced push back from those in power. All involved both dialogue and dissent. It is the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. But the ability of people to dissent is becoming harder across the world as more and more governments clamp down on civil society.
Donors who support civil society in questioning power can get accused of supporting instability by host governments and of getting in the way of commercial opportunities by multinational corporations. It can seem so much easier to avoid controversy and stay away from anyone who challenges unaccountable power. But it is those very questioners on whom development depends. Too many of my conversations with development agencies on this involve reactions that range from “what?” to “sure but we can’t”. I was impressed, therefore, on my recent visit to the Netherlands, by the Dutch government for standing out among bilateral donors for having an approach to development includes a stream on “Dialogue and Dissent”. In part this flows from a long Dutch tradition – for hundreds of years Holland has been a place where writers and thinkers have found refuge and freedom to speak. But it flows too from a recognition that active citizenship and healthy debate are not just nice-to-haves but are essential for effective development.
Rebel with a cause
This is not about being a Rebel Without A Cause. ActionAid and partners, for example, work from the inside as well as outside. They work to support governments in fulfilling their responsibilities by supporting capacity development, sharing evidence and experience and helping connect those making decisions with those affected by them. They work too to help advise business on best practice and on ensuring workers, communities and companies prosper together. They are often sought out for their advice and support.
When I met last year with the government on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania they told me that the work of ActionAid and partners in helping schools to fight child marriage was a crucial support to the government’s strategy. But ActionAid and partners also speak out when the actions of governments or corporations violate people’s rights and when people are set to be pushed into great hardship.
Last year on that same visit I also met on the Tanzanian mainland with people whose land and homes were threatened a landgrab by a Swedish company. We faced a lot of heat for speaking out in support of the community – and the community faced even greater heat. Even some donor governments questioned whether such an approach might be counter-productive. But shortly afterwards the principal funder of the landgrab pulled out, problems were recognized, the deal was put on hold, the people’s issues started to be heard and community members felt secure enough to start putting up permanent structures to support their farming again as productive citizens.
Likewise, across the world, we have challenged corporations who have not paid their fair share of tax and the systems of tax breaks which deny the resources needed for health and education: when we and others first started raising this issue we were seen as part of an awkward squad, but now international institutions say that it is their top priority and leading companies say they back the call for fair taxation.
The Dutch development minister Liliane Ploumen was right to highlight inequality as “the mother of all crises”, threatening to “unravel the very fabric of our societies”. Today’s extreme inequality is leading to an excessive and mutually reinforcing concentration of power and the wealth in an ever smaller number of hands, posing huge dangers to us all. It is in this context that what is in recent decades an unprecedented international clamp down on civil society is taking place in an attempt by those at the top to silence those who question their power by exposing corruption, exploitation, environmental damage and the violation of people’s rights.
Yet it is upon a vibrant, fearless citizenry and civil society that efforts to confront inequality and ensure inclusive prosperity are realized. The Dutch are right to support those working for more equal societies where no one has impunity, where all can be questioned, and where everyone counts. Other donors need to do the same.
Sometimes, the best way to avoid doing something is to pretend that you agree. Let’s say that you are a political leader, or a corporate leader, who rather likes things as they are. You see that there is huge public concern about rising inequality, and that demands for a redistribution of power and wealth from the 1% to the rest have suddenly again become mainstream. What to do? If you reject those demands, you risk your legitimacy, perhaps even your position. But if you act on them, you face what you perceive to be personal loss, and perhaps too you fear that the plutocrats who have backed you would see to it that you fall. The best way forward, for the cynical leader, or the scared one, or the dull one, is to agree that you must act and and then do nothing meaningful about it. Gandhi said about those in power: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Perhaps he should have said: “Then they tell you that you have won, and then, only if you keep pushing, can you really win.”
This is where we have got to in the fight against inequality. We have won the debate and shown that inequality is bad for everyone, and why more equal societies are safer, more prosperous, more cohesive, and happier. We have won the struggle to get leaders to commit to act on it. But we face now the contradiction that every world leader has promised to act on inequality and yet only a handful of them are doing anything about it. Where to go from here?
Firstly, we citizens need to insist that governments take the specific actions that are needed to tackle inequality. In ActionAid’s new report, The Price of Privilege: Extreme Wealth, Unaccountable Power, and the Fight for Equality, we set out some of the policies needed to reduce inequality. These include investing in public services, redistributing land, making use of public investment, closing tax loopholes, instituting real living wages, strengthening trade unions and strengthening bank regulation. But we go further too, given the extent of the inequality crisis we are in and the need to shift power away from the 1% and towards the rest of the population. Thus we propose:
- Institute a wealth tax.
- Recognise, redistribute and reduce women’s unpaid care burden.
- Increase corporate democracy — implement structural shifts towards employee control of companies.
- Institute a maximum wage that is proportional to the wage paid to the most junior workers in a company.
- Limit private finance for political parties and political campaigns.
The point this makes it that is now time to go beyond asking leaders if they will reduce inequality; instead we need to ask leaders whether, given their solemn commitment to reduce inequality, they will implement named, specific, and sometimes politically difficult policies which are key to reducing it. We need to let them know that they will be judged by their actions.
But we need also to go beyond merely asking leaders at all. We need to build people’s power to pressure leaders to act. An imbalance of power can never be solved merely by asking those in power to hand it over. That has literally never worked. Every one of the most important progressive social changes have been won from below, not given from on high. Just look, for example, at all those new heroes who will now grace US bank notes, in celebration of the end of slavery, the achievement of civil rights, and votes for women: Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King. All of them were activist trouble-makers who the establishment of the time tried to crush. Remember how came about the end of colonialism, the end of Apartheid, the development of welfare states, LGBT rights, the decision to “Drop the Debt”. Recall how came about free education in Kenya, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India, and free HIV medicines in South Africa. All from struggle. All from building up powerful, grassroots mobilisation and strength. Policy papers and lobby meetings alone won’t, can’t, deliver the extent of change we need. We need to build power from below.
That’s why at ActionAid we’ve helped communities in Cambodia and Tanzania to mobilise against land grabs, why we’re supporting movements of freed bonded labourers in India, why we support the tax justice coalition in Zambia, why we support movements of indigenous people taking on the mining corporations in Australia. That’s why we’ve helped to mobilise 3.8 million people in Uganda who have signed a petition to stop politicians exempting themselves from tax. 3.8 million! That’s why we’ve convened allies internationally to mobilise to fight inequality, as no organisation can win this fight on its own. These are not separate streams of activity but a part of a collective effort to show the powerful that the people will not stand for the continued concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. Not all of our work has been this transformative, and where we have made the most difference has always been through supporting national movements, never by ourselves. We are on a learning journey on this. But one thing is clear. Though all of us in civil society are still remarkably civil, a big chunk of us are coming to accept, painfully, that inequality is not a polite theoretical debate or standard-issue lobby demand. It’s a struggle between those who cling onto privilege and those extraordinary ordinary people working to prize the chance of a good society from their iron grip. Our role is to facilitate the process of people getting organised, and to help support people who though resolutely non-violent face batons and bullets from the power-wealth nexus of the vicious and avaricious.
It’s nice, really nice, that the other side has announced that they agree with our call to tackle inequality. It’s a moment to savour and celebrate. But it’s not enough. You can’t eat a commitment.
Both from governments and from civil society organisations, we need no longer ask them if they agree. We’ve won on words. We need to win now on action.
[Transcript of Ben Phillips’s address at the Irish Embassy in Kenya’s commemoration of the Easter Rising on 24th April 2016]
I’ve been asked to share reflections as a relative of the Rising from the 100th anniversary commemorations that took place in Dublin this year, which I attended as the great grand nephew of Padraig Pearse.
It’s wonderful that this year the Rising has been commemorated in this way. 25 years ago, at the 75th anniversary, there was no official commemoration. This has now been put right. The events of this year have been led from the top, led by the President. He spoke beautifully of the Rising’s call for equality and the need to make good on that promise.
Whilst his political leadership has been welcome, it has even more importantly been a commemoration for the people. The Dublin commemorations were a very much organized as gathering of the families. At one event I turned to another of the relatives of the Rising and commented that we had better seats than the politicians. “Quite right too,” he said.
It was a gathering of families, but also like a gathering of one family. It was great to meet the current day James Connolly and currrent day Eammon Ceant. Eammon used to live in Nairobi, and his daughter asked me if you can still get great ice cream at Village Market.
Most inspiring of all for me was to meet the older relatives of the Rising, whose fathers and mothers had served.
Annie O’Hagan, whose mother was volunteer in the Rising even though she was pregnant.
Moira Reid, whose father was in the GPO. She was wearing all her father’s medals. She is 91, “92 this year” she told me. That smile she had that day – no one that day looked as beautiful.
Harry O’Hanrahan, whose father and uncle were in the Rising. He told me about how his brother is called Padraig Pearse O’Hanrahan
Eanna Deburca, whose father Frank Burke was a student at St Enda’s, the school that Pearse set up so young Irishmen could grow up proud. Frank played at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, served in the GPO … and was later Head Master of St. Enda’s. Eanna told me his father approached every challenge in life by asking “What would Pearse do?”
This year’s Easter weekend in Dublin had its harder moments too. Hearing from the older relatives of the Rising about the brutality that their parents experienced in prison in Wales. The tough return. The civil war. Their parents not talking about the Rising much. Them rarely wearing their medals. The day which we can now celebrate as a day of pride also being a time of loss. Tears not just of celebration but of pain too.
It was a time to hold grown men as they wept.
It was a time too for remembering what it was all for.
The promise of the proclamation: “equal rights and equal opportunities of all, cherishing all children equally”.
The dream: to replace landgrabbing by the rich with fair land redistribution to the poor, cramped slums with room to move, painful hunger with full stomachs, squalor with dignity, exploitation with decent work, corporate impunity with workers’ rights, inequality with equality, hopelessness with hope, shame with self-worth.
The idealism that drove the rebels. As Pearse wrote: “The wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life/ …To dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold./ Oh wise men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true?”
As the relatives reflected: across the world, those values and that idealism could not be more needed today. The work of the Rebels is not yet finished.
Most of all, it was an Easter Weekend of music and songs – songs that were used to communicate the Rising was coming and songs to tell its tale. For as I was told, those who wish to change the future are also called to be memory keepers
And as the older relatives told me:
The rulers write the history but the sufferers write the songs. And the music wins in the end.
[Ben Phillips is Padraig Pearse’s great grand-nephew. He lives in Nairobi where he is is international director of policy, research, advocacy and campaigns for ActionAid, an NGO working to tackle inequality and injustice.]
On April 22nd, about 160 countries are expected to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement which was negotiated last year. It was one of the two international deals agreed by Heads of State in 2015 which made it such a critical year for international development and for millions of activists and citizens around the world. The second was the agreement of the new Sustainable Development Goals- or the Global Goals – which provide a new and ambitious framework to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.
The global coalition – action/2015 – was formed because of those two historic deals. It brought together civil society around the world – from the big organisations like World Vision to small grassroots groups and networks– to campaign together across sectors and geographies. As Head of the action/2015 campaign for Save the Children, one of the organisations at the heart of the action, I was one of those campaigners.
With the signing of the climate deal this week and the independent evaluation of the campaign concluded (which you can read here), it feels like a pretty good time to step back and reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what we can learn for the future
When action/ 2015 was first conceived, lots of people were sceptical. And there’s no denying it was ambitious. The idea of bringing together diverse sectors from climate and development across hundreds of countries with different cultures, languages and attitudes to campaigning in just under two years seemed pretty unachievable to many – especially those who had worked in coalitions before! I have to admit when I started on the campaign at the end of 2014 I had similar qualms – could we really pull it off?
But, I’m proud to say the campaign proved the sceptics wrong. The official evaluation highlights in its 7 main conclusions that one of the key impacts of the campaign was that global civil society groups learned to work together. I would caveat that to say that action/2015 helped them to work better together but the sense of solidarity that grew across the campaign was undeniable. it worked because of the campaign’s loose, fluid structure that meant individual organisations or national coalitions could take the content and tactics they liked, adapt them to their own contexts and leave the bits that didn’t work for them. It was also crucial that this was not a campaign with specific policy asks but was focused on mobilisation.
“The main reason we got involved is because it is a unique campaign. It links global to local, and it aims at mobilising citizens. This was unique meaning that we usually target policy makers, but this was more about masses, numbers, reaching out to everybody. And that attracted me. It was something different.” , Participating organisation, Africa
The other main point that leaps out is the conclusion that ‘action/2015 made meaningful steps towards Southern ownership of a global campaign’. By the end of the campaign 80% of its members were based in the South. The campaign’s centre of gravity definitely felt like it was much more in the cities, towns and villages of India or the streets of Costa Rica and Kenya than Northern capitals.
Big NGOs did play a driving role in the campaign, but in a different way than in previous campaigning. I’m proud that Save the Children took much more of a backseat, deploying resources and support to help civil society all over the world campaign.
It certainly wasn’t an easy campaign and we didn’t get everything right. In many ways we were building the car as we were driving and there’s no doubt with more resources and time we could have achieved more but what the campaign did achieve should not be dismissed. Millions of people mobilised to take action, a new generation of activists inspired, some amazing backers from Malala to One Direction, a strong basis laid to ensure the successful implementation of both deals and a new model of campaigning.
So the big question now is what next? The evaluation sets out 10 lessons. Some of them might sound obvious like leaving enough time for planning and the importance of proper evaluation but these are often the mistakes made again and again.
Tax injustice, the refugee crisis and global health challenges like Zika – these are all issues that have been hitting the headlines. The new frameworks we have could arguably have helped prevent many of the inequalities that lead to and exacerbate s these and similar crises and they can definitely help reduce their likelihood in the future. But that won’t happen unless people know about the deals and are able to hold their leaders to account. That’s why a sustained and concerted campaign building on the momentum and goodwill generated last year is vital. We need to campaign less about the frameworks themselves but campaign about them through the real life lens of people’s lives.
Campaigning is about trying new things and being prepared for some things not to work.Yes if we were to do action/2015 again I’d do some things differently but I would keep the same level of ambition and the open, inclusive campaigning model. action/2015 has built a huge appetite for campaigning together all around the world which we must harness. I can’t put it any better than one of the action/2015 campaigners from Africa – “I got more friends and when you have more friends you feel stronger.
Guest post from Helen Elliot from Save the Children UK, on a talk by Maria Neophytou of the GREAT Initiative, as part of the #changehistory series of talks. You can listen to all the previous talks here.
Last week a book that was the first of its kind was released, entitled “In Our Own Words: A Dictionary of Women’s Political Quotations”, edited by Nan Sloane (Centre for Women and Democracy). Why has it taken until nearly a century after women first got the vote in the UK for a collection of some of our most memorable voices to be recorded in one place? Many feminists would argue that one of the reasons is because, up until now, we have been learning about HIStory, a record of humanity written by and for men.
Maria Neophytou of The GREAT Initiative brought this argument with her when she came to speak to staff at Save the Children on International Women’s Day. Maria raised some challenging truths about what it means to be a feminist in today’s world, and offered us a different perspective on the development sector and the potential for feminism to reshape it into something new.
Change is hard, but that’s ok. Inspired by Beyoncé’s lyrics in her recent single “Formation”, where she uses “slay”, a term first coined within the African-American gay community that means to “succeed in, conquer or dominate something”, Maria argues that in order to change HIStory to reflect our experiences and our perspectives, we must become more comfortable disrupting the social order and to come in fighting unapologetically for our right to be remembered. (If you haven’t seen Beyoncé’s performance of Formation, you should!)
Who or what is it that we are disrupting?
Many of you will have already read and hopefully shared the article recently published by Grayson Perry about the “Default Man”. The overarching point he makes is that it is a group of white, middle-class, straight, usually middle-aged men that holds the power in our society but that their time in the driver’s seat is starting to run out. This group of Default Men sit comfortably within the Patriarchy (a system of oppression of men over women) which has influenced how we all think and feel in ways we may not even be cognisant of. But feminism offers space to reflect and unpack our thinking. It welcomes difference and wants us to move away from binaries of male and female, celebrating differences and allowing conflict of opinion to exist.
Waves – trough or crest?
Feminism is now in its fourth wave where people are connected by technology and social media plays a critical role in challenging everyday sexism, misogyny and gender binaries. We’ve seen a significant shift in public attitudes about what it means to be a feminist in even our lifetimes. Maria speaks of how there were no feminist societies when she was at secondary school in the 90s, or at university 20 years ago. Nowadays, teenage girls and young women (and boys and men) have superstars like Beyoncé blasting strong feminist messages into their earphones in a language that makes sense to them. Being a feminist is suddenly not only cool, but is expected of young people. Meetup groups exist for feminists in every city across the country and Emma Watson is the face of the HeforShe campaign.
Maria uses the fourth wave messages to raise questions about how we currently “do” development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were designed by Default Men, but the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a product of a more global conversation and their framework takes a more feminist approach, she says. But what about the aid architectures we operate within? Is it time to revamp the paternalistic approach to giving where strict criteria are decided by the patriarchy? Do we need to clear some space for more partnerships to enable more open, honest and more meaningful collaborations and changes to occur? Food for thought!
And challenges remain in the fourth wave. Our children are up against a barrage of reinforcing messages about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Campaigns such as Pink Stinks and Let Toys be Toys are working to tackle the marketing industries to bring gender neutrality into products. Only 450 female MPs have been elected since 1918, while today there are 459 male MPs. Women still face harassment of various forms in their daily lives, which campaigns like Everyday Sexism is working tirelessly to change. And entire coalitions exist today to tackle violence against women despite there being a UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in place since 1993 and other incredible worldwide conventions and policies put in place for women’s protection (see the UN Women’s Timeline for a much needed uplift here).
The discussion is left wide open for debate but I’d argue that right now we might be falling down towards the trough of the fourth wave, making splashes and spraying salt water in the faces of the patriarchy. But, we’ll soon rise up, stronger in our diversity to form a powerful crest which will be the fifth wave of feminism. What will it look like? Equality, hopefully!
The media and political classes in Britain are in shock at the dramatic resignation of the minister in charge of welfare, Iain Duncan Smith. He had been seen as a hawk for austerity. Now he says it has gone too far, is politically not economically driven, is hurtful, and is dividing society. The significance of this is huge, but far too much of the media and political debate has focused on which politicians his declarations will help and harm, or what it might mean for the other debates that elites see as more important than poverty and inequality, namely the forthcoming referendum on Europe. Surely there is no more important issue than what kind of society we want to live in, and whether we really are, as he asks in his resignation letter, “all in this together”. And to have the defendent of austerity turn witness for the prosecution is a massive development. This is not an NGO slamming the austerity programme. It is the man who ran the programme.
Let us listen to what he says:
“They are losing sight of the direction of travel they should be in. It is in danger of drifting in a direction that divides society rather than unites it, and that I think is unfair.”
“That is deeply unfair, and that unfairness is damaging to the government, it’s damaging to the party and it’s damaging to the public.”
“It looks like we see benefits as a pot of money to cut because they don’t vote for us.”
That’s a lot further than we NGOs ever went! (I used to represent a number of charities on UK poverty, though now I live in Kenya and on this issue speak only for myself.)
I can understand how Iain Duncan Smith must feel when politicians say that the evidence he shares doesn’t count because he is really just pursuing a narrow partisan agenda. It’s what he and his acolytes used to say about me, and about the foodbank volunteers who shared the misery of those they met, and about the doctors who highlighted the damage to public health, and about researchers whose studies showed the harm, and about church leaders who pleaded for more compassion. I can see why many charities may be tempted now to revel in his fall. But the issue is much bigger than him. When Fifa official Chuck Blazer revealed the extent of institutionalised corruption, prosecutors did not reject his testimony because of his past – they saw that they needed to tackle the whole edifice. Likewise when the minister who ran an austerity programme exposes its true nature, social justice advocates need to look beyond the individual to the bigger issue. That bigger issue is not one party or one country. Indeed, it can be said that for about 35 years after World War II governments of both left and right worked to constrain market excesses and contain inequality, and for the 35 years after that they both let it go. The scalp to claim is not one politician or one government, it is an ideology, a lie, that elites across Europe have held onto for far too long. Good people of all political stripes have seen an architect of austerity admit that foundations are built on sand. It is a chance for us all to turn away from it.
And though this is not about the man, one thought about the man. It seems that people like me may have misunderstood his aggression – the threats, the bluster, the anger – as certainty. But now he says he had been wrestling with the injustice for too long. Perhaps his aggression wasn’t certainty. Perhaps it was shame.