Why the struggle against inequality is a transformational campaign we can win

There are three types of campaigns: the lost causes, the just a little bits, and the transformational.

The lost causes can be great to begin with – the nobility of defeat, the pride in being proved right that things would get worse, the Butch-Cassidy-and-the-Sundance-Kid-final-scene moments. But that can get draining. Which can lead campaigners to the second type.

The just a little bits are calls for changes that don’t really challenge the powerful, but do measurably lessen the suffering of the poorest. The just a little bits bring “quick wins” a-plenty (so good for people who can’t deal with defeat), and bring praise from the establishment (so good for people who need affirmation). And they do help improve lives. But they don’t tackle the causes of poverty and suffering.

The transformational campaigns are those for fundamental shifts which change power relations: the end of slavery; the beginning of democracy; women’s rights; anti-colonialism; anti-Apartheid; drop the debt. Unlike the lost causes, they are winnable – not quickly, not easily, but winnable. And unlike the just a little bits, when they are won they really do change the world.

The struggle against inequality is a transformational campaign we can win. Those worried that no global leader would ever champion the cause can now be reassured to see as our champions President Obama (and Bill Clinton), along with the Pope (and the Archbishop of Canterbury), and the new leaders of New York (and New Delhi). (We’ve also got as champions the really clever economists; the moderately clever ones not yet, but they’ll catch up.) Those worried it was too much for the public can see opinion polls by Pew and others that show overwhelming majorities agreeing that the gap between the richest and the rest has become too wide.

Those worried that it would upset the super-rich … well, they were right. Some of them won’t get it and never will. It’s called Affluenza. It led a rich businessman to threaten to cancel his donations to the church if the Pope didn’t pipe down with all the stuff about social justice. But, encouragingly, even some of the richest get it.  As the wonderfully named hedge funder Bill Gross ($2.2bn) puts it in a letter to his peers:

“Admit that you, and I and others in the magnificent “1%” grew up in a gilded age of credit. Yes I know many of you money people worked hard as did I. A fair economic system should always allow for an opportunity to succeed. Congratulations. Smoke that cigar, enjoy that Chateau Lafite 1989. But (mostly you guys) acknowledge your good fortune. You did not create that wave. You rode it. And now it’s time to share some of your good fortune by paying higher taxes or reforming them to favor economic growth and labor, as opposed to corporate profits and individual gazillions.”

Meanwhile our opponents, the defenders of inequality, are all over the place in their response. Some deny that inequality is getting wider. Some admit that it is widening but deny that’s a problem. Some admit it is widening and admit it’s a problem but claim that the way to reduce it is to further roll out all the policies that have made things worse. And then when they have nothing left they call us Communists.

But the struggle against inequality isn’t a claim that it is possible or desirable for every person to earn the exact same income. No, it’s an insistence that every person is precious, that we need each other, and that in a decent society the gap between the richest and the rest is contained. For three decades after the Second World War, that was the global and bipartisan consensus. It can become again.

We’ve got powerful global champions, and public backing, for the strong clear message that inequality has gotten out of hand. There are, of course, powerful and well-resourced forces determined to further increase inequality. But it is not a thing we need the serenity to accept, it’s a thing we need the courage to change.

Syria’s refugees and the kindness of strangers

It was the kindness of strangers. When Aziz fled from the Syrian conflict to Lebanon, he heard about a farmer who allowed Syrian refugees to camp on his land. “How much is the rent to be on his land?”, I ask Aziz. “It’s nothing,” he tells me, “the farmer charges nothing.” The tent, made by Aziz himself from recovered tarpaulin posters from old billboard adverts, is lit by an electric light. “How do you get electricity?” “From the farmer. He let’s us use his electricity supply for free.”

Aziz cannot find work except for occasional daily labour in the nearby town. “What kind of work do you do?” “Anything. I will do anything. I will dig the earth with my bare hands if it will help me take care of my daughters.” Aziz wants desperately to return – “if it was just me, I would have tried to stay and work there.”

But for the safety of his daughters he cannot. And so he stays, reliant on the generosity of a farmer who cannot turn away one who comes in need.

Aziz is one of the lucky ones. In another settlement I meet Hadoud. Since his arrival in Lebanon from Syria he has lived in a building that was originally constructed as a chicken coop. His whole family – from his one year old daughter to his 70 year old mother – live in one room. They have to pay $100 a month rent to the owners, an amount they cannot afford. They have used up all their savings and now, they say, “we buy food with debt.” It’s getting cold in the Bekaa Valley, but they cannot afford a heater and have only blankets to keep them warm.

 Ben Phillips/Oxfam

“Do the kids go to school?”, I ask. “No,” Hadoud tells me,” we took them out. The teachers hit the kids and made them empty the trash instead of doing lessons. The teachers never made the kids from this country do that. Only the Syrian kids …” – at this point the aid worker translating for me, who is Lebanese, pauses; his eyes are wet; he regains his composure; he swallows; he continues – “They selected only the Syrian kids to be sent out of lessons to take out the trash. We could not keep them in that school.”

There are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The international aid response is chronically underfunded across the region. There is a clear need to do more to help Lebanon cope. The challenges are challenges for the international community as a whole. We might wonder how anyone could reject Hadoud’s kids from school lessons. But it is all of us, collectively, who have done so.

“Hadoud’s mother wants to give you coffee,” says my translator colleague, “but I told them no, that you have to go. They cannot afford to host you. I do not want to embarrass them.”

But then coffee comes. “They have made it anyway. They insist on welcoming us.”

We sit and drink coffee and the conversation turns to “home”. “We will go home, inshallah,” says Hadoud, “we shall go home soon. And then you must visit us there, in Syria, in Syria.”

But for now they must remain. And more arrive each day. How to manage such large scale movements of people in a volatile situation is complex, very complex. And it is one that the international community cannot expect Syria’s neighbours to handle unsupported, but must manage together. It is the humanitarian crisis of our time, a collective responsibility, and requires a collective response to match it.

But as the international community looks at how to upscale its humanitarian response, what seems less complex is the guiding principle of the family with almost nothing who offer coffee, of the farmer who leases his land for free, of the translator who cannot bring himself to say what has been said.

It is the kindness of strangers.

The Post-2015 Agenda: 3 thoughts on Latin America, and 1 on the Caribbean

Late last week, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation published A Laboratory for Sustainable Development? Latin America, the Caribbean and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, a report that I co-authored with my CIC colleague, Alejandra Kubitschek-Bujones.

It was commissioned as an input to a retreat for Ambassadors from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries in the United Nations, their negotiators from capitals, and representatives from the UN in the region, along with its companion piece What Happens Now? Taking the Post-2015 Agenda to the Next Stage

While Alejandra is an expert on the region, I am not. So here’s an outsider’s perspective, based on a series of interviews with people from the region who are immersed in the post-2015 agenda, and others who see it within a broader geopolitical context.

1. Latin America has exerted disproportionate influence in the early stages of the post-2015 debate and could play a decisive role over the next two years.

In the run up to Rio+20, Colombia and Guatemala published a joint proposal that put sustainable development goals on the international agenda.  This is a classic example of how countries can drive global policy by articulating ‘big picture’ concepts in a format that creates broad debate. As host of Rio+20, meanwhile, Brazil played an important role in shaping the SDGs, while the current President of the General Assembly is from the region.

Over the next two years, Latin American countries will be the swing vote on many key issues. Whether they drive progress, or hold it back, will have a significant impact on whether or not the UN agrees a worthy replacement to the MDGs.

2. Latin American countries will be most influential if they build on their experiences as ‘laboratories for sustainable development.’

We pretend it’s not – but, at its worst, the post-2015 debate, and sustainable development more generally, is mind-numbingly formulaic and abstract, a tedious litany of phrases intoned by negotiators and various hangers on.

What was striking, talking to Latin American governments, is that many of them have strongly held beliefs about how development should be done differently – in the real world, and at a scale that makes a difference to the lives of large numbers of people. Coming from Europe, where governments are fiddling around the edges and hoping things will get better in a decade’s time, it’s very refreshing to hear Latin America countries argue about which of the many models that coexist in the region has most to offer its people.

By drawing on this diverse and innovative track record, the region’s governments and leaders from civil society and business have a real chance to push the new agenda away from empty language and towards a debate about the concrete policies that are needed at a time when prevailing assumptions about how the global economy works are widely discredited.

3. But the region cannot continue trying to push critical issues to the side of the negotiations.

Most Latin American countries are engaged in a struggle to build the institutions and social structures they need if they are to meet the long-term needs of predominantly urban and increasingly prosperous populations.

But many of its citizens live in conditions of chronic insecurity. Mexico has fewer people than Japan, but while the latter has around 500 murders a year, over 27,000 Mexicans were killed in 2011. You’re ten times more likely to be murdered in Nigeria than the UK, but seventy-six times more likely to be murdered in Honduras! Human security and a broader set of questions of how to build institutions that offer citizens justice and fairness are fundamental to Latin America’s future. There is also an inescapable transboundary dimension, given the role played by organized crime in driving violence and, once again, a ‘laboratory’ of innovative responses, especially in some of the more forward thinking cities.

These issues make some of the region’s governments feel uncomfortable (though others are calling loudly for a post-2015 focus on security and governance challenges), but it’s surely better for the region as a whole to get ahead of this agenda, rather than get stuck in a defensive posture.

4. Caribbean countries could keep the world’s eyes focused on the environment.

The UN is so determined to show that sustainable development is about more than the environment that there’s a good chance the new goals will be heavily skewed away from core environmental challenges.

This is especially problematic for the island states of the Caribbean, which face existential threats from climate change. These countries, along with other small island states, have long been highly influential in the climate process, but are now gearing up to try and make sure the post-2015 framework makes a contribution to environmental sustainability that goes beyond the usual pieties. This is no easy task and will require visionary thinking about what kinds of global goal have the potential to drive change in a way that adds to what is already going on in the international system.

Many of the issues discussed in the paper, as well as the points made above, apply across the Latin American and Caribbean region. However, I believe that Caribbean countries have a unique opportunity to push for a strong – and tangible – regional position on the environment, and then to advocate for it globally. They can also help answer the question of how the post-2015 and current climate negotiations should interact, given that both these processes are intended to finally be agreed at summits for leaders at the end of the same year.

Read the whole paper here.

10 Tips for a Bold & Ambitious Post-2015 Development Agenda

Climate negotiations in Warsaw made faltering steps towards a possible 2015 agreement. Trade talks in Bali were salvaged at the last minute. As global negotiations on trade, climate and development reach a crescendo between now and 2015, success or failure to reach agreement will be seen as signals of the future of multilateralism itself.

These talks remain fraught with complexity and technical and political disagreements that have considerable potential to derail agreement. As former chief of staff for the Secretariat of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, I know first hand how difficult it will be for these groups to arrive at consensus on the world’s most contentious issues- and how besieged they will feel by the demands of governments and stakeholders from around the world.

A number of lessons we learned from the Panel could improve the prospects for consensus and the ability to put forward recommendations that effectively address the challenges the world will face in the coming decades.

In this new commentary for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, I outline 10 critical actions. Continue reading

Saudi Arabia’s national shame

A couple of weeks back I posted about Saudia Arabia’s mass deportation of Ethiopian migrant labourers. Now, with 7,000 migrants returning on flights back to Addis Ababa every night, their stories are starting to emerge in earnest. Humanitarian experts based here who are supporting them and the government are aghast at what they’re hearing.

It seems to be becoming clear that rape of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not just frequent, but endemic. 95% of women coming back are either pregnant or lactating, according to the EU humanitarian organisation, ECHO. Some women who had children in Saudi Arabia have reportedly not been allowed to take them back to Ethiopia.

Many women are also reporting being raped multiple times by Saudi Arabian security and prison staff after being detained prior to deportation. Others held in the temporary detention camps (the FT says there are 64 of them) report that they were forced to purchase their food and water at inflated prices.

2,500 returnees and counting – about 2.5% of those returned so far – have been referred to hospital here, with high rates of both psychological trauma and sexual and gender based violence.

The Saudi authorities are reportedly confiscating many people’s money and valuables before they’re allowed to board the plane – and even their shoes, so that returnees arrive back here in the middle of the night, in temperatures as low as 5 degrees C, in bare feet. Many families are being split up and put on separate flights, including in some cases kids separated from their parents.

The Saudis (30th richest country in the world on GNP per capita) aren’t even deigning to pay for the cost of the charter flights bringing the migrants home – instead leaving it to Ethiopia (175th richest country in the world) and humanitarian agencies to pick up the tab.

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