From exclusion and inequality to humanity and Francisconomics? My personal reflections before a meeting in Rome

This month I’ll be joining a meeting convened by the Vatican on overcoming social and economic exclusion, and was asked in advance to share my personal reflections …

My personal journey into learning about social and economic exclusion began at the grassroots. As a young volunteer, I left England to live as the only white resident in a black township in South Africa as a teacher and ANC activist, just after the end of Apartheid. There I learnt from my friends about how, through determined and painful struggle, the most brutal exclusion had been overcome, and also about the ongoing challenges still faced.

My later work, running programmes and campaigns for the Children’s Society, Save the Children, and Oxfam, has taken me to live in ten cities and four continents, seeing for myself how processes of social and economic exclusion can break the lives of the poor, and dehumanise the rich. And it has also enabled me to see glimpses of a more positive future – where social movements, NGOs, progressive business leaders and governments – have shown that economics can and should put the human at the centre.

My current work, as Director of Oxfam’s Campaigns and Policy, has focused on examining and highlighting the challenge of rising inequality.

Last month, in a ragpickers slum in Delhi, I sat with an amazing group of women and girl leaders who have found that together they have power. “We used to be so shy, I would not go out of speak like this, but then one person, then another, then another, and then more got involved. Schools are our right, the right of every person – and yet our neighbourhood had no school. We campaigned for a school, then for no fees, then for enough teachers, then for chairs and desks. We won.  We are pushing for a health centre now. We used to fear government officials – now they fear us!”

And last month too I helped launch Oxfam’s global campaign to tackle rising inequality, Even it Up. Extreme economic inequality has exploded across the world in the last 30 years. Seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago.  Inequality is preventing poverty eradication at the global level. As I saw for myself in Zambia when I met with landless farmers there, despite the country moving from officially poor to officially middle income, the number of poor people has actually increased. Inequality exacerbates conflict, harms social cohesion, undermines economic progress and corrupts politics.

The good news is the increasing recognition that this is problem, as see in the plaudits for the campaign from Kofi Annan, Graca Machel, Joe Stiglitz and the Chief Economist of the Bank of England and this great clip from CNN. The press in India and Pakistan have both been talking about how Oxfam has put down the challenge to build more equal societies. And it’s been deeply moving, given my own experience working in South Africa, to see South Africa’s leading newspaper say that the extreme inequality revealed in the Oxfam report makes a mockery of South Africa’s freedom.

Rising and extreme inequality is jeopardising progress on tackling poverty and is hurting us all. But we have cause for hope too: it doesn’t have to be this way, rising inequality is not inevitable and can be fixed. Poverty and inequality are not inevitable or accidental, but the result of deliberate policy choices. Inequality can be reversed.

That’s why I’m excited that this meeting is taking place in Rome. Pope Francis summed up the inequality crisis with great clarity in Evangelii Gaudium:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expreses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”

Once again, as with the movement to drop third world debt, people around the world are being inspired by the call of the Holy See and the Catholic Church to reinstate human beings at the centre of economics. Like Pope Francis, they are demanding that world leaders act to address rising inequality which is holding back poverty reduction and dividing societies. Through its teaching, through mobilising millions of people for social justice, through its convening of diverse leaders, through its international diplomacy, and through the personal example of Pope Francis, the Holy See is playing a unique and transformational role in advancing the cause of tackling rising economic inequality.

A more inclusive economy is within our grasp, if our leaders seize it. But to generate the political will required will need a movement of people across the world, pressing for a more equal society that values everyone and promotes the common good. The good news is that the movement is building.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76