What do we need to do to win the fight against inequality? An activist-researcher seeks your advice.

As activists we sometimes talk as if we know the answers. As researchers we get to admit that we don’t (until publication, of course :-)). As both an activist, and a researcher, I’m asking for your advice.

I’m really delighted to be starting a new role this month as Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute at Notre Dame. It’s wonderful to join a place with such brilliant colleagues, and one rooted in values of service to society. And it’s a great privilege to be given the opportunity to step away from day-to-day organising to spend time in deep thinking, exploring, and testing ideas with others. There’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some activists about whether time in the academy is something of indulgence. (I love the 1930s story of two friends: “I’ve been away fighting the fascists in Spain,” declares one, proudly, and the other replies, “No, my friend, you’ve been away writing about fighting.”) And there’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some academics that activists lack the objectivity needed for proper investigation. (I confess that I absolutely have a side – what the church has unashamedly termed “a bias to the poor” – and that I am interested in research into the fight against inequality in order to help advance that fight.) But I do think that both of those nagging doubts that activists and academics have about each other are ones to work through, not to send us our own ways. The academy is enriched in practicality by exchange with those working for change, and those working for change are “armed” (non-violently!) through learning from exchange with the academy. And the more I have got involved in working on inequality, the more I have appreciated that it is both possible but also very hard to win the fight against it – because it is a fight where so much power (in wealth, in social dominance, and in hegemony of ideas) is weighted against it. So it’ll need a huge movement, and it will also need for that movement to be as well prepared as possible for the struggle, which is something I hope my research will help with.

I’ve had a joyous and wonderful time helping to launch the Fight Inequality Alliance which has grown from just an idea into a vibrant coalition of over 300 NGOs, unions and social movements building power from below to press for change, and I am really excited about where it is heading. (Look out for news of some of the mobilisations happening later this month – I’ll be reporting from the one in Mexico, others from events in the Philippines, India, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, the UK and many others.) I’m also really excited about the brilliant and diverse broad leadership of the alliance today – especially from women and youth from Global South communities who have been at the sharpest end of inequality, whether neglected rural areas or marginalised urban slums. This is where the leadership of a international social justice movement must come from for it to live its values, and for it to succeed. (An issue I covered in more detail in this Guardian piece from 2013.) I’m really excited to support this new leadership and to start a new role of service through research at Notre Dame into how best to organise to fight inequality.

So now here is my request for advice. There has been a lot of excellent work on how inequality has gotten so extreme, why it is harmful, and what kind of policies could help tackle inequality, and to that work my research will be deeply indebted; I’ll try to summarise some of it in the book, but I won’t be adding much to that. Instead my focus will be on how help build the social and political context for such policies to make the journey from paper proposals to enactment to implementation to sustainability. In other words, complementing the what with the how. Learning from social movements of today and of history seems key to that. My aim is to produce a book to help those working to fight inequality. Advise me please: What are the key learnings to build on? What book on social movements fighting inequalities has most inspired you? Which activist or researcher would you particularly recommend I link with? What are the current and past examples I should explore? What have been the key learnings from your own work? How can I make sure this is a book that is fun to read and helps people bring change? You can tweet or DM me @benphillips76 or email me ben.phillips@fightinequality.org – or even send an old-fashioned letter to me at Ben Phillips, Kellogg Institute, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.

Thank you for your help, your solidarity, and for all that you do to fight inequality.

I think, in the end, we’ll win. Together.

Ben

Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – new website

I am currently leading the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies initiative –  a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners, convened by the governments of Brazil, Switzerland, and Sierra Leone, and supported by the Center on International Cooperation. Many of you will have seen our Roadmap, and information about the initiative on here, at events, and on other websites.

We have just launched the new Pathfinders website – take a look and find out the latest on the implementation of the SDG16+ targets.

Remembering Brian Matyila, Fees Must Fall Young Lion

 

Image may contain: one or more people

When you meet your heroes, you wonder what they will be like in person. When they are really as special as they seemed from afar, that’s inspirational. When your heroes are younger than you, it’s a whole another thing.

I met Maliviwe Brian Matyila, a 22 year old South African activist of the Fees Must Fall movement, at a gathering of the Fight Inequality Alliance in South Africa. Fees Must Fall is, as Brian put it, “a group of South African University students who are mobilizing broader society to call an end to commodification of education as this further broadens inequality in society in a country that has one of the most unequal societies in the world.” What more formalised organised civil society had failed to do – challenge the South African government on inequality, mobilise in large numbers, and win some real victories – had been managed by a group of young people who had had to learn campaigning, and go to school, while doing it.

I listened in rapt attention to a young man who had taken on such responsibility, and finally asked him, “is it difficult?” “Yes,” he said. “Being a student who could get thrown out for activism can make it hard for family. The pressure from authorities, too. The repression. Being black in university is anyway a pressure. And being a young gay man too.”

Brian was a young man who, like his comrades, took huge responsibility on his shoulders, carrying the burden of centuries of injustice and putting himself on the line. He and his comrades were tough and challenging – much less indulgent of whites who tried to steer direction than earlier generations had been. He was bold, fearless, and deeply serious. He was also huge fun – and his conversation would flit from detailed discussions of policy and reflections on political theory to joking about the troubles of dating. He and his Fees Must Fall comrade Lesedi found themselves in different camps of South African politics but remained wonderful and supportive friends. Here is Brian and friends signing the beautiful anthem, Nkosi Sikel ‘iAfrika;

And now he has passed. He will go down not only as a future leader that has been lost but also as a leader that already was. I feel so fortunate to have known him. I hope he will one day be in books about politics and history.

As I went through our old facebook messenger conversations I found an interview we did that I planned to publish as a part of a series. Now it stands on it’s own. Here is what Brian told me.

How would you describe in a sentence or two the current state of your struggle?

The movement has gained a lot of traction in society, we are now in the process of educating everyone on the pillars of the movement and ensuring that we build a movement that is grassroots based and consolidated nationally.

What motivates you personally? 

I am motivated by my own personal sufferings. I look at my family, being the only one in my family who is in University and how education is still seen as a privilege whereas it should be regarded as a basic right. I wake up everyday praying to work hard to ensure that more rural, black kids like myself have access to education.

What are the hardest times, and how do you deal with them?

The State has responded to our cries with repressive and oppressive methods with arrests, rubber bullets and intimidation being a daily experience in our spaces. I think some of the hardest times for us is when we time and time again find one of us being sent to prisons with bail being denied. We gain strength from the support we give to each other and more especially the support we receive from the elderly and international allies.

What do you have to face in terms of resistance by the powerful?

The repression that our movement has received from the State and our Universities in enormous. It often feels like the State has brought back apartheid security tactics to silence us. It frustrates us to see that the very same government we voted for and see as a democratic government time and time again refuses to listen to its youth but chooses to imprison, intimidate and “deal with”

How would you describe public opinion in relation to your activism? How do your families relate to your activism? What are the misconception and how do you counter them?

The general public initially failed to understand FeesMustFall as a movement that includes all, including those who are outside of the University space. It has taken a lot of community engagements and education for us to correct this perception and we are now seeing more and more community based movements, trade unions, religious groupings and other members of civil society coming together to not only pledge support but recognize themselves as an integral part of the movement. Families tend to be skeptical of our involvement in the movement as they fear their children being victimized by the state as they have seen the extents in which the state has adopted to silence us. The greatest misconceptions about the movement in the public’s eye are around the violence that has played itself out in the eyes of the public in our protests. This violence is usually as a result of private security and police literally beating protesters and being physically abusive, Media has a number of failed to report these incidents factually.

How best can you inspire more people to join you?

The simplest form of inspiring people to join us is by explaining how expensive University fees affect all parts of society and how these fees hinder a lot of people with great potential from accessing education leaving the have nots poorer while those who already have grow their knowledge and wealth.

Describe how it was to meet activists fighting inequality from Tunisia and Brazil and elsewhere? What do you see as the commonalities of the experiences and struggles in different places?

Meeting activists from other parts of the words was truly inspiring for us. We tend to be too invested in our struggles and we end up failing to realize that there are other people who face as much hardships and struggles as you do. There was a great lot to learn from each other and we learnt the importance of connecting with others and learning from each other because indeed it is true that in unity we are much stronger.

What would success look like in the short and long term? 

In the short them success for us would be unconditional access to higher education of all who are academically deserving without any financial burdens and in the long term it would be a decommodified, afrocentric education that seeks to service the youth of South Africa.

What has been the most important thing you’ve learned after becoming an activist?

I have learnt that inequality is a reality and we must all do our utmost best to fight inequality.


Hamba Kahle Brian. Go well. In the so many others you have inspired, you live on.

The End Violence Solutions Summit

The End Violence Solutions Summit took place this week in Stockholm, Sweden, bringing to life a recommendation made in a CIC report in 2014.

Key speakers included the Queen of Sweden, the Deputy Secretary-General, the heads of UNICEF, WHO, and UNODC, and ministers from 14 pathfinder countries. Never have so many senior leaders come together to prevent violence against children.

At the heart of the summit, INSPIRE – seven strategies for ending violence against children. The international community has reviewed the evidence and is speaking with one voice about how SDG16.2 can be delivered.

Brazil, Japan and United Arab Emirates all used the summit to join the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.

Credit goes to countries first out of the blocks: Indonesia, Mexico, Tanzania and – the Summit host – Sweden. Also to Susan Bissell, who has nurtured the partnership in its early years and now gives way to Howard Taylor, joining from Nike Foundation as the partnership’s new director.

The big question. How will the partnership respond to Amina Mohammed’s challenge to present strengthened national commitments to end violence at the High-level Political Forum in 2019?

Read CIC’s challenge paper on preventing violence against children and my review of the Solutions Summit.

 

Image by Jessica Gow, Government Offices of Sweden

The Vancouver summit on UN peacekeeping

This week, defense ministers are meeting in Vancouver to talk about UN peacekeeping.  This follows a conference hosted by President Obama on UN operations in New York in 2015 and a follow-up event in London last year.  The idea is that countries with advanced military capacities that would otherwise stay away from blue helmet commitments will pledge units to the UN.  In 2015, for example, David Cameron promised to send British personnel to Somalia and South Sudan.  Despite a bit of a wobble around Brexit, the UK has followed through on both.

In August, Japan hosted a preparatory meeting on training and capacity-building needs for peace operations in Tokyo.  Paul Williams and I wrote a background paper — you can read it at the link below.  We’ll see if any of our ideas get picked up in Vancouver (I’ll report back if they do).

Tokyo PKO Prep Meeting Background Paper

Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – published version

Recognizing the urgent need for action to address growing violence, Brazil, Sierra Leone and Switzerland are leading an initiative that asks countries to take wide-ranging steps to make progress against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2019. The Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a group of 23 countries, launched its plan of action at the UN General Assembly on September 21.

In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, governments have made ambitious promises to reduce all forms of violence, and to tackle injustice and exclusion at a time when many people feel let down by their societies. The Pathfinders have come together to ensure that bold and visionary targets are translated into action that will change people’s lives.

The Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies covers some of the major challenges of the twenty-first century, including ending violence against women and children, tackling abuses such as forced marriage and modern slavery, fighting corruption and illicit financial flows and renewing institutions so they can meet growing demand for inclusive growth and environmental sustainability

The Roadmap focuses on the next five years—mapping out the beginning of a collective journey and providing a guide for decision-makers, for funders and for campaigners. It is relevant to all countries, in line with the universality of the 2030 Agenda, but recognizes the urgency of action for the most vulnerable people and countries. (September 2017)

Download Full Report

How can technology help the UN improve its effectiveness and reputation?

Ryan Gawn looks at a new report on how emerging technology can help the United Nations reform

The September gathering of world leaders has come and gone, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is now back at his desk. Whilst his attention is likely to be focussed on headlines coming from North Korea, Syria and Myanmar, he is also battling to advance reform of the UN system. As with any large bureaucracy (not least one which has to manage the expectations of 193 member states) the ever present reform agenda can quickly become  all-consuming for a Secretary-General. This leaves very little time to look outside the UN system and its political machinations, and identify challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Such as emerging technologies.

Big Questions

The pace of technological change brings with it extraordinary opportunities and challenges for the UN and its work. A new report looks ahead, shines a spotlight on the future, and makes some practical recommendations for the Secretary-General on how the UN can respond. Authored by former UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher and supported by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, New York University and the Makhzoumi Foundation, “United Networks – How Technology can help the United Nations Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century” sets out some big questions for the future of the UN:

“How can the UN adapt its methods to the Networked Age without compromising its values? How can technology increase UN effectiveness and efficiency, build public trust, mobilise opinion and action, and weaponise compassion? How to make the sum of the parts more able to deliver on the goals set out so powerfully in the UN Charter seven decades ago?”

20 recommendations

As part of a team of expert contributors (including young people, tech gurus and activists), I led on the public engagement and political issues which emerging technologies can bring. Consulting with innovation leaders, governments, tech companies and NGOs, we were astounded by the many examples where existing technology is already being used to tackle many of the problems which the UN seeks to solve. It also makes 20 recommendations for the Secretary-General to consider, proposing international agreements (e.g. a Geneva convention on state actions in cyberspace, a universal declaration of digital rights, a single digital identity), equipping the UN with the right skills and resources (e.g. a Deputy Secretary-General for the Future, a global crowdfunding platform to fund humanitarian work, machine learning & data modelling to predict migrant and refugee flows, harnessing artificial intelligence and big data to make better decisions), and using the UN’s status to enhance citizenship and reduce extremism (e.g. diplo-bots to reduce online extremism, enhancing internet access and reducing the digital divide, a digital global curriculum).

Reputation & public engagement

A critical factor in the reform agenda and the ability of the UN to effectively innovate and harness technology is its reputation and public engagement – the UN is nothing without public, business, civil society and member state support. Considered by many to be the closest humanity has to world government, many of the criticisms of the UN are borne from the high expectations citizens have of the organisation, particularly regarding transparency, accountability, legitimacy, demonstrating impact, and regaining trust. And so in engaging with its audiences, the UN faces a profound dichotomy in managing expectations – how to balance the aspirational and moral value of the UN with the realist politics of a multilateral organisation within a cumbersome bureaucracy. UK Prime Minister Theresa May highlighted this very issue in her recent address to the General Assembly: …throughout its history the UN has suffered from a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the nobility of its purposes and the effectiveness of its delivery. When the need for multilateral action has never been greater the shortcomings of the UN and its institutions risk undermining the confidence of states as members and donors.”

The report presents this expectation / impact gap with 21st century digital twist – emerging technologies in public engagement will only exacerbate citizens’ demands for information, evidence of impact, authentic engagement, and compelling narratives on the value the UN brings. This is coupled with the rapid pace of technological change, media consumption and marketing shifts (voice, mobile, AR & VR), changes in attention spans, information expectations and social media echo chambers.

Nevertheless, emerging technologies can also help solve some of these challenges. The report provides some practical recommendations in this area, with a common thread involving harnessing technologies to provide both wider and deeper engagement – empowering audiences to both input into and communicate the UN’s work and mission. Examples include a digital first strategy, stronger authentic social media engagement by officials, a more transparent process for S-G selection, crowd sourcing of solutions, digital platforms for policy debate, chat-bots to enhance audience engagement and democratisation of user generated content to empower citizens, activists and campaigners in the digital space.”

More opportunities than challenges

An inherently optimistic report, it does not see emerging technology as a panacea to solve all the UN’s many challenges. It won’t always be as empowering and enlightening as Silicon Valley tech gods may opine, and will inherently be somewhat limited by our mere human use (or misuse) of it. Nevertheless, it recognises that there are opportunities, and that the UN must innovate with urgency or face a slow slide into under resourced decline and irrelevance. More importantly, it highlights the need for the UN to be ahead of the curve – looking outwards, partnering and engaging, and setting the agenda – just as it has already achieved in many other areas. A stronger reputation and public engagement can only help in making this aspiration a reality. As Fletcher concludes:

“If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between people who want to share ideas and those who want to exploit them. Between those who want more transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want more secrecy. Between old and new sources of power.”

Update – 27/09/17: United Nations opens new centre in Netherlands to monitor artificial intelligence and predict possible threats