Austerity economics has just been smashed. By the IMF.

A powerful new report finally kills off any remaining intellectual veil for a broken economics that is breaking society.

Sometimes an ideology is so brilliantly propagated that observers might not even notice it’s an ideology. In the corridors of power and in mainstream discussion, it ceases to be questioned. Then it goes catastrophically wrong. And it begins to seen again for the ideology it is. It becomes questioned again. And, if they are smart, leaders hear this and start to self-correct. This is where we’ve got to with neoliberalism, austerity, and rising inequality. Except for the self-correct part. Right now, instead of self-correction, we’re seeing many mainstream politicians unable to shift away from dead economics, and what seems in too many countries like the start of social breakdown. Change is well overdue. Who can prompt leaders to drop the old economic nostrums that are causing so much harm?

Enter the IMF with a sledgehammer. Progressives duck in case in the sledgehammer is meant for them. But then the IMF demolishes the case for neoliberalism and austerity. It sounds extraordinary, and it is.

Today the IMF will launch a new report, “Macro-Structural Policies and Income Inequality in Low-Income Developing Countries”, the latest in series that mark the intellectual journey the IMF research department has been travelling in recent years. Packed with detailed quantitative analysis it demonstrates that much of what elites have been advancing as unquestioned economics is demonstrably harmful both to economic growth and to public wellbeing.

Of course what makes this surprising, and what may make some progressives unenthusiastic about welcoming this, is also what makes it so powerful: an institution that has been, for far too long, a defender of the free market story and the Washington Consensus – the idea that liberalizing trade, privatizing everything possible and cutting down public spending was a one-size-fits-all solution to any government in trouble – has now refuted it.

This paper is not the first by the IMF to take a stand on inequality, but it is notable because it claims in no uncertain terms that public spending – i.e. the opposite of the budget cuts that it once advocated for – decreases income inequality. They even have a formula – a 1% increase in public spending, they report, leads to a 2.3 decrease in inequality after 5 years.

The paper also takes a strong stand against prioritizing indirect taxes, such as VAT, showing that they increase inequality.

The paper not only demolishes neoliberal economics but also helps build the evidence base around the kinds of policies that are necessary to reduce inequality. Those include some of the things that NGOs like ActionAid have been talking about: emphasizing direct taxes instead of indirect taxes, spending on social services (this paper focuses on infrastructure, but we would see that more broadly), support for cash transfer programmes, and the need to ensure that any programs that are likely to increase inequality are offset by measures to decrease inequality.

Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model. And now, in countries around the world, the lack of action in inequality is leading to a resurgence of xenophobic nationalism and the far right. Broken economics is breaking society. But too many leaders still seem trapped in the belief that there is no alternative. So let them know that today the IMF – yes, the IMF – has comprehensively set out why that broken economics must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

 

 

Update: The IMF report is now online here

2016 has shattered outdated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world.

A dominant worldview amongst many progressives in recent times has been that over time things will keep getting better, sometimes with exhilarating speed, sometimes too slowly, and sometimes disjointedly, but broadly, over time, better and better. 2016 has shattered that. Let us state it plainly: the simplest summary of where we are right now is that things have started getting much worse.

This is not a counsel of despair but one of action to fix the crisis. But to fix it, we have to confront the failure of many progressive organisations to assess and respond effectively to what has been happening.

The first failure has been failing to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. The broken economics of ever increasing inequality has broken society and politics too. Elites have seemed at times to not see the crisis, or cynically worked to accrue as much as possible while good times lasted, or even more cynically readied themselves for deals with the hate-filled forces now ascending. Many progressives (NGOs included) meanwhile have been failing to take on this crisis with the strength and imagination needed, consoling themselves with marginal reforms and allowing themselves to grow ever distant from the lives of millions cast aside, imagining that their own closeness to the establishment would ensure they could always bring change. Or they have finally found the courage to name the crisis but even still have found themselves couraged-out when it came to approach, carrying on almost as before, following a radically new diagnosis with a similar treatment. The 2008 crash showed that the world’s prior way of doing business was broken – and by and large the world responded with some tweaking here or there. And from that dysfunction has emerged the obscene politics of the far right that threaten every social gain of the twentieth century, and risk a return to its horrors. We cannot rely on institutions to prevent evil at a time when increasingly there is not much justice, just us. We will need to depend on solidarity, on each other. This is not new…

For the second failure has been failing to learn from the elders. We hear that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It has been no such thing – it is only been the worst year that those who have discarded older traditions have seen. And so part of ensuring that our futures surpass the present is to rediscover lessons of our ancestors. We need to go deeper than tactics and ask how did older generations keep hope alive in times of hate? Let us re-read King, let us re-read about the resistance of the 1930s, let us re-read about those who fought slavery and colonialism, let us re-read the great stories about hope under Babylonian captivity. Older worldviews, from the Buddhist to the Celtic, have seen life as more cyclical.  Older worldviews have demonstrated a capacity to walk through the valley of death without fear. More recent approaches have implied that with an x at election time and a click for every crisis, things would only get better. This was wrong. There is a need to relearn the capacity for long-haul struggle. And yet there are those who have been living up to those histories, but they have not been given the backing they deserve…

For the third failure has been failing to learn from the youth. The progressive establishment have been lecturing them to compromise more, smooth their edges, be more “grown up” – patronizing them with the claim that they agree with their ends but that the youth are just not doing it right. It is what Martin Luther King powerfully lambasted as “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”. But 2016 has shown that the future is being written by the determined. The comfortable world of consultations and reports built on projects won’t ever be enough to bring about the deep changes in power structures that are needed to build a society that works for everyone. It is from the courage of grassroots young activist groups that the opportunity of a better future will grow.

My own sense of despondency after the events of 2016 was lifted by joining in December a global gathering of activists at a community farm in South Africa. Organisers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, and community leaders from 15 countries – South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Zambia, India, Australia, UK, USA, Denmark, Tunisia, Uganda, and Malawi – gathered in Rustlers Valley, Free State, South Africa for a two-day sharing of experiences, discovery, challenge, music, hiking, spirituality, and planning a campaign to fight inequality from local to global level. Veterans of the struggle against Apartheid, from the ongoing struggle of the Brazilian landless movement, and of the first nations of the Americas dialogued with love and respect with brave young activists for Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, human rights, climate justice, economic justice and more. They climbed the nearby rocks together, reconnecting the personal and political. The gathering signaled a shift in the roles of different organisations too, with the INGOs there accepting the challenge put forward by social movements for INGOs to support those at the sharp ends of the struggles in their leadership.

The activists at the meeting recognized that we are at a moment of global crisis, in which the dominant economic and political systems are broken and must be transformed; that a radical democratising of institutions must be fought for; that the intersection of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy has produced a dramatically dysfunctional and unequal world in which elites find it easy to accumulate more and exclude the vast majority from power; that only people united and organised from below and beyond borders are capable of bringing the changes we want in our world.

This approach, rooted in an intersectional feminist analysis and in a commitment to challenging the power structures which perpetuate injustice, is a very different way of looking at the crisis we face today than the approaches with which many progressives have been operating for the past decades. And to change is hard. But as King said, “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

As a student of history I am worried that 2008 was 1929. And we’re in it. And my kids are in it. The stakes are existential. And if we carry on as we are, we’re losing. Times like these remind us that campaigning isn’t a job, it’s a calling. And right now it’s so vital that we hold hands and build anew. Two roads: we organise, and win (or at least go down honourably trying), or we each try to duck and hide and compromise and survive in shame. 2016 was a reminder of the impossibility of being neutral, and the moral obligation to ensure love wins. We do not know whether we will prevail. But we do know that if we do not change, if we do not organize ourselves to fight back, if we do not build power from below and across borders, then we will certainly lose. And that if we do fight back then resistance in itself will help to restore our common dignity, and the restoration of that dignity provides a basis for building a world where everyone is precious.

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”  Wrote Albert Camus at only twenty-seven.

2016 has shattered out-dated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world. This isn’t about project wins in the next two or three years, it’s a generational struggle – but generations before us have fought them, and won.

Why the way we vote matters for fighting poverty

2016 is a big year for voting.  The result of EU referendum sent shockwaves through the UK and around the world. The outcome of Colombia’s referendum vote surprised many and numerous national elections from the Philippines to Uganda have taken place. All eyes are now of course on the US as the election battle enters its final days.

The relationship between democracy and development has preoccupied experts and policy makers for decades. Most work focusses on the causal link between the two.  Is democracy a pre-requisite for development? Can you have development in an autocracy?  And what does democracy mean anyway?

There is universal agreement that free and fair elections are critical to a true democracy. However, much less attention has been paid to the way people vote and the impact on development outcomes.

This year, after a decade working on international development in the public and not for profit sectors, I spent some time working for a voting technology company. They provide everything from biometric technology to internet voting all around the world. Before I started I hadn’t thought a lot about the mechanics of how you actually vote and the impact it could have on development. But the more I got into my job the more I realised how intertwined they are.

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The benefits of electronic voting

The easier we make it for people to vote the more likely they are to do so. The more they trust the result the more likely they are to turn up to the ballot box. The faster the result is known the less instability there is likely to be. Technology can play a role in all of this.  From internet voting making it more convenient for people to vote at home or on their mobiles to biometric technology stamping out fraud at the ballot box, technology can boost  legitimacy of elections in many ways.

In its 2016 ‘Digital Dividends’ report, the World Bank noted that ‘digital technologies help enable the poor to vote by providing them with robust identification and by curtailing fraud and intimidation’. The report also suggests that digital technologies have made elections freer and fairer by improving voter registration and reducing errors. A fascinating study by Thomas Fujiwara of Princeton University found that in Brazil, the introduction of electronic voting made it easier for poorer people to vote, significantly increasing their participation. This led to the election of parties who increased spending on public health, a priority issue for those newly enfranchised voters, which in turn resulted in better infant health outcomes.

This month, a new publication authored by prominent election experts and which I helped to bring together– The Future of Elections offers further food for thought.  The contributors include Professor Jega, the acclaimed former head of Nigeria’s Electoral Commission, Dr Bam who ran South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for 12 years from 1999 and Dr Quraishi, formerly India’s Chief Election Comissioner.

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What next?

There are three key elements which jumped out at me:

Firstly, innovation is happening in the most unlikely places: countries leading the way in digital democracy are not those you might suspect. For example, the voting technology used in the USA, the home of Silicon Valley, is in urgent need of updating.  And, the fact that we continue to vote in the UK with a pen and paper and meagre identify checks is frankly absurd. In contrast, India first began using voting technology in the 1980s revolutionising the participation of illiterate voters at the ballot box. In 2015, Nigeria used biometric technology to significantly increase credibility in its elections and huge countries like Brazil and the Philippines have used electronic counting to deliver almost instantaneous results significantly reducing the incidence of electoral violence.

Secondly, we need more evidence: whilst the essays provide good qualitative evidence on the role of technology, there is still not enough thorough analysis- especially on the benefits it could bring for particular groups. For example, would technology encourage more women, who due to work/home obligations and safety concerns may be less likely to go to the polling booth, to vote? Another area which needs urgent attention, as a recent report from the Atlantic Council highlights, is whether technology lowers the cost of elections.  For many low-income countries this could mean significant savings and more to invest elsewhere.

Thirdly, trust in technology still needs improving: many people are still sceptical about the use of technology in elections, although the benefits are clear. A joined up effort from business, the international community and those governments who have seen at first hand the benefits it can bring could help change that.

The Sustainable Development Goals and Democracy

So how can the linkages between elections and development be strengthened? The Sustainable Development Goals say little on this- democracy is only once explicitly mentioned and elections not at all.  On the plus side the inclusion of Goal 16 –‘To promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies’ was in itself an important step forward but,as the Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, has pointed out, one particular gap is ‘the failure to address the key instruments of representative democracy, namely parliaments or political parties’. Instead the targets are very broad talking about ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.

The broad nature of the targets is  however an opportunity–to interrogate how exactly that representative decision-making can be delivered and then to take action.  Specific targets to bolster voter turnout could have a huge impact on democracy, development and citizen trust by holding governments to account for their efforts to encourage people to turn out to vote (not just those that it is most in their interests to convince). Technology is by no means a silver bullet but it could be a vital part of the solution.

Within development there has been a lot of focus technology, for example in healthcare, education or disaster relief. Elections are an area that could do with much greater attention. Technology offers a golden opportunity to increase the legitimacy of elections but it will take a concerted effort and focus to make sure it benefits people in some of the poorest countries of the world.

Honouring Jo Cox by supporting women in politics

Jo Cox only used one qualifier when asked what kind of feminist she was.

“Massive”.

She believed in politics and the rightful role of women at the centre of power. She was forever pushing other women forward and was profoundly committed to supporting female candidates across the political spectrum. Inspired by her example and in her memory a few us hosted an event with Julia Gillard, designed to encourage women to consider a public life and give them the tools to change the world.

You can read Julia’s speech here and watch the whole event here:

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Before Julia spoke we heard from a range of amazing speakers about what they can offer women considering public life and what each of us can do. Suggestions ranged from getting involved in Campaign Bootcamp to amplifying the voices of other women (buying this book is a good place to start). There isn’t enough space here to do full justice to those speakers, so the most important practical step you can take is to watch and share the session as a whole. Then make a note in your diary, right now, to check in two months time how many of the things the speakers ask of you that you’ve done.

There is so much to be sad about in times like these, but much hope to be drawn from Julia Gillard’s message that power is not a dirty word and politics is not a dishonourable profession. Our Jo believed and embodied both those things and I hope this event helped set the next Jo Cox off on her journey. We must do all we can to support her on her way.

 

 

Land grabbers, be afraid, the Women of Kilimanjaro are coming for you

[Across Africa, tens of thousands of grassroots women activists have been organising rallies and mobilisations as part of #women2kilimanajro, a march and assembly for land rights. Hundreds of delegates met this week at the foot of Kilimanjaro, including representatives from each country who climbed Africa’s highest peak. This is Ben Phillips’s speech given at the conclusion of the assembly in honour of the Women of Kilimanjaro.]

It is a privilege to address this group of powerful women.

Why do men take land from women? Why do corporations take land from the people? Because they believe that you are weak. But you are not weak. You are powerful.

I have learnt from you how your power comes from three things.

Firstly, the power of the your victory on the mountain. As the great Revd. Dr. Martin Luther King declared, “I have been to the mountain top!” But even he did not climb Kilimanjaro as you have. You have shown there is no mountain you cannot climb.

Secondly, the power of the music. It is said that though history is written by the rulers, it is the people who suffer who write the songs. And in the end the music wins.

Thirdly, you have the power of each other. Your friends, your partners in struggle, the women in this assembly and beyond, are your greatest strength. And together you are formidable.

My message to you is well done and thank you.

But I also have a message for the land grabbers. Be afraid. Be afraid of the women of Kilimanjaro. For they are coming for you.

 

This week’s UN refugees summitry: a missed opportunity?

The huge numbers of people on the move around the world – be they seeking refuge from war or oppression, or looking for a better life – will be top of the agenda for world leaders gathering this week at the United Nations in New York for their annual get together at the General Assembly.

Monday sees the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to assess how to update the way the international community deals with people moving across borders.

On Tuesday, US President Obama is convening a Leaders Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis to directly consider how to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge in recent years partly – though by no means exclusively – driven by the conflict in Syria and the instability and repression in several parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Not to be too cynical about it, it’s noteworthy this high level focus on refugees follows the recent flow of large numbers into the European Union and growing pressure on wealthier countries to do more.

The majority of the world’s 21 million refugees are being hosted – as they have always been – by neighbouring countries, which, in the case of Syria, means Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Beirut, Amman and Ankara had been calling for greater support and solidarity from the rest of the world for several years, but the response so far has been underwhelming.

Few countries have been prepared to take in significant numbers of people and the UN’s humanitarian relief operations for Syria have been chronically underfunded – this year only 74% of the money needed – and, in many cases, promised – has actually being made available.

As the Syrian civil war entered its fifth year in early 2015 and the UN was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps, it’s no wonder many Syrians decided to take a chance on the perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean and through the Balkans or directly across the Mediterranean to Italy.

This week’s high level discussions may be being driven by the arrival of large numbers in Europe and demand for more action by richer countries, but it’s still the less wealthy countries in regions affected by conflict that are doing the lion’s share of coping with the millions displaced by conflict.

Take the example of South Sudan where, following the breakdown in the fragile ceasefire in the civil war in July, another 100,000 South Sudanese have crossed into Uganda which is already hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of murder, rape and economic chaos.

Support in countries neighbouring conflicts is provided by host governments, UN agencies like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR and its food agency, WFP, along with non-governmental organisations, like Sightsavers, the one I work for, which has helped organise medical treatment for eye diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases in refugee camps in Kenya, for instance.

But this week will hear calls for deeper reform of the global system and for developed countries to take on a fairer share of providing refuge for people seeking asylum.

The UN’s refugee agency has already hailed Monday’s summit as a “game changer…that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move”.

Humanitarian and development organisations and activists though are markedly less effusive.

They point to the watering down of the draft declaration for the summit, where governments, particularly the Europeans and Americans, have sought to limit their commitments to concrete action – suggesting political leaders in wealthier nations are still unwilling to fully cooperate and share responsibility for taking in people forced to flee their homelands by war, oppression or poverty.

The growing electoral appeal of nativism and right-wing populism in the EU and US is inhibiting many governments from doing more. And that is not going to change any time soon.

The example of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose political fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse since she took a brave decision to take in the bulk of Syrian refugees who made it to the EU, is deterring even those who feel a moral duty from following her lead.

So UN agencies as well as humanitarian and development organisations will be forced to continue depending on uncertain finances and ad hoc solutions to look after those seeking asylum will continue their work.

It needn’t be this way.

The next few days provide an opportunity to make the step change the UNHCR has prematurely hailed in the way governments, working together, could make life easier for refugees and reduce the strain on the countries currently bearing the brunt.

This requires collective political will and individual leadership from the government heads gathered in New York, but, as things stand, the odds are this chance is going to be missed.