CIVICUS speaks to Ben Phillips, Launch Director of the Fight Inequality Alliance, a growing movement of citizens from across the world uniting to take on the crisis of widening inequality, and build a world that works for all. Committed to countering the excessive concentration of power and wealth in the hands of small elites, the Fight Inequality Alliance includes leading international and national civil society organisations (CSOs), human rights campaigners, women’s rights groups, environmental groups, faith-based organisations, trade unions, social movements and other CSOs.
- Why is widening inequality such a worrisome phenomenon?
Widening inequality – and how we start to beat it – is the defining issue of our time. Anti-apartheid leader Jay Naidoo calls the widening chasm between a powerful few and the rest “Apartheid 2.0.” Rising inequality is holding back progress on poverty, hurting growth, making societies less healthy and liveable, widening mistrust and instability, exacerbating violent conflict, facilitating extremists, holding back action on climate change, corrupting politics, weakening the voice of ordinary people and concentrating ever more power in fewer hands. Privilege and wealth are reshaping economic and social systems at the expense of people as a whole and the planet. We are witnessing a world in danger not just of a slowdown in social progress but of a reversal of it.
Seven out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago. As I saw for myself in Zambia when I met with dispossessed farmers there, despite the country moving from officially poor to officially middle income status, the number of poor people has actually increased. China, India and Russia have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. Five per cent of Indians own 50 per cent of the country’s wealth. Growth has seemingly been decoupled from jobs and from broad benefit for ordinary people. Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model.
Inequality is intersectional and all forms of inequality influence each other. Our societies are rooted in patriarchy, racism and many other forms of discrimination. Women, especially women of colour, are also the hardest hit by rising economic inequality: they are the workers in the most precarious employment; they suffer the most from cuts in public services; and much of their work, paid and unpaid, is not recognised and rewarded. Challenging patriarchy, challenging discrimination, and challenging the power of the 1 per cent are all essential and inseparable to building societies where all are valued. Governments are loosening their watch over major corporations and big finance, and tightening their watch over civil society, including unions, community organisations and citizens. Civil society space and democratic rights are being eroded to make way for overly powerful elites. So too, an increasingly economically divided world is becoming an increasingly angry and intolerant one, and groups that blame an ‘Other’ (defined through their race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality) have dramatically grown. Every progressive cause, and the dignity of every person, is threatened by the inequality crisis. Uniting to fight inequality is essential for all of us.
- While inequality is truly damaging, the need for action to tackle it, once a controversial idea, is now accepted even in mainstream economic discourse. Does this mean the movement to fight inequality has won?
If only! As civil society, we face the paradox of having won the debate but still needing to win the fight. To hope that commitments would be made by governments to tackle inequality was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. It may have felt like winning. But real government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. The mainstream consensus has shifted to recognise inequality without a consequent shift in action. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery. This is not just because it takes time. It’s because widening inequality is a consequence of a political economy cycle in which ever more power and wealth are concentrated in fewer hands, warping society and politics to further concentrate power and wealth. To break this cycle and catalyse a renewed virtuous cycle therefore requires a process of shifting power.
That is why the focus on the Fight Inequality Alliance is on organising to build up collective power from below, and across organisations and borders. None of this is easy. But that’s also the point: we are faced with a structural challenge of dominance by powerful elites who are not simply waiting to be better informed by civil society before they voluntarily make things fairer. The approach to how we advance change needs to be commensurate with the scale of transformation required. The power of the people can challenge the people in power – but when, and only when, we organise. The Fight Inequality Alliance is helping people build that power today.
- How is the Fight Inequality Alliance working to achieve its very ambitious goal?
The Fight Inequality Alliance seeks to reverse widening inequality and build economies and societies that work for all. Amongst the shifts the Fight Inequality Alliance is calling for from governments and international institutions to ensure this are: action to combat discrimination and tackle entrenched privilege; fairer taxation and progressive spending for quality universal public services and social protection; minimum living wages and strengthened workers’ rights; strengthened land rights; fair and bold action to address climate change; protection of migrants and refugees; and protection for democratic rights and civil society space. At national and regional levels alliance members are developing their own, more detailed, visions and narratives that reflect the regional or national contexts and agreed campaigning priorities.
Crucially, Fight Inequality Alliance members don’t only share a set of values of the kind of society we are working to advance. We also have a shared recognition that it can’t be achieved merely by asking for it from leaders, through insider advocacy, policy papers and pilot projects. As much as these are important, the fight against inequality will be won by deepening people’s collective power and advancing practical actions that challenge and change the status quo and shift power.
Inequality is ultimately a question of power – and societies are only truly more equal when power is more equal. Reversing rising inequality is not just about changing the rules but also about changing who gets to make the rules. That is why we are working together to build people’s power to pressure leaders to act. The alliance’s key added value is in building the strength of people to press for change. The model is one where securing small wins is useful not only in itself but also in strengthening people’s confidence and capability for further small and larger wins. A movement of national alliances is seen as the key driver of change, supported by regional and international solidarity and action to amplify it.
- Who is involved in the Fight Inequality Alliance, and how is it organised?
The Fight Inequality Alliance brings together social movements, trade unions, and progressive CSOs in a common struggle for a more equal world. Those involved in it include the International Trade Union Confederation, CIVICUS, Femnet, Africans Rising, Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development, Greenpeace, ActionAid, Oxfam, ACT Alliance, the Global Alliance for Tax Justice and many national organisations and movements including Gambia Has Decided, Fees Must Fall, India Social Action Forum and others. It’s a wonderfully diverse group that came together because inequality and its root causes are the common thread in the challenges we face the world over in building societies that work for all, and because all those involved are really clear that they cannot do this on their own, and that if inequality is to be tackled we need to name that as our explicit goal and work together in an alliance.
The Fight Inequality Alliance is coordinated by a steering group representing the different sectors and regions of the world. Global gatherings were held in 2016 on a community-owned farm set up by anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, in early 2017 in a poor community in Manila, the Philippines, at a convent of radical nuns who had helped defeat Ferdinand Marcos, and in late 2017 at a youth activist-managed hostel in Copenhagen, Denmark. Through these meetings and other joint work, allies have been able to come together with a common platform for change and a common approach, overcoming the challenges faced by different parts of civil society in doing joint work, going beyond the ‘egos and logos’ that can hold back cooperation, and building an alliance big enough to make a difference. It’s a facilitative and enabling way of working driven by the needs of people working for change in their countries. It’s an open and growing movement and we’d welcome any interested readers getting in touch.
- In October 2017 the Fight Inequality Alliance organised a powerful global mobilisation to challenge the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how their actions contradict their words on inequality, and it is now organising another one to counter the elite gathering of the World Economic Forum at Davos. What happened last October and what can we look forward to in January 2018?
Back in October the mobilisation of Fight Inequality Alliance members surprised and shook the World Bank and the IMF, and helped re-energise civil society groups, by bringing people out on the streets to highlight how the World Bank and IMF’s actions continue to widen inequality. World Bank security had earlier in the week tried, unlawfully, to shoo us away from outside their building, and then we had a bit of a scare when a far-right US pro-gun group claimed on social media that they would counter-protest the Fight Inequality protest, but on the day the sun shone and the Fight Inequality protest brought the attention of the public and media to the inequality crisis and the role of the international financial institutions in perpetuating it, and the World Bank and IMF were shown up by refusing even to comment to the Al-Jazeera correspondent who asked them about a list of examples we gave of the damage they were doing on the ground.
This January, at the same time as political and business elites will meet at the World Economic Forum and claim that they are fixing the problem of inequality, Fight Inequality Alliance groups across the world will show through mobilisations and actions that answers do not come from those elites who actually are making inequality worse; that instead, the way to tackle inequality is through strengthening the power of people by uniting for change and listening to their solutions.
As the world's 1 per cent gather in the luxury Swiss mountain resort of Davos, rallies will be taking place around the world on mountains of a very different sort – the mountains of garbage and of open pit mines that millions of the most unequal call home. People will be gathering in events in countries including Bangladesh, Denmark, the Gambia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, United Kingdom, Zambia and Zimbabwe to demand publicly an end to inequality. Events worldwide include a pop concert at a slum next to a garbage mountain in Kenya, a football match in Senegal, a public meal sharing in Denmark, a rally at an open-pit mine in South Africa, a sound truck in Nigeria, and a giant ‘weighing scales of injustice’ in the UK.
Mobilising globally in this way is helping to expose how we cannot put our faith in elites to fix an inequality problem they perpetuate, and that instead we need to recognise as citizens that we, together, are the people we’ve been waiting for. Mobilising together across the world inspires people to recognise their own power and grow in confidence, builds up the movement, and builds up the links that build collective power.
We have rising inequality because the super-rich are determining what governments should do. Davos can never be the answer because the problem is caused by the influence of the people at Davos. Governments around the world must listen instead to their citizens, and end the Age of Greed. We know that governments will only do that when we organise and unite, so we are coming together as one.
- What needs to happen for widening inequality to be reversed?
We, all of us, need to happen! Elites won’t self-correct. The arc of the universe won’t bend on its own towards justice, but collective people power can bend it down.
We’re optimistic. This optimism does not come from a naïve assumption that recent elite declarations of intent to act on inequality will automatically be followed through without public pressure. Rather, the possibility for change comes from people organising and connecting. Around the world, extraordinary ordinary people are fighting inequality – from women garment workers in Bangladeshi factories fighting for living wages; to youth activists in Zambia fighting for mining companies to pay their fair share of tax to fund public schools and health clinics; to LGBTI activists in Liberia fighting discrimination and hate speech; to indigenous communities fighting to prevent fossil fuel companies from destroying their land. The growing Fight Inequality Alliance is connecting these struggles, building a movement to bring people together to challenge privilege and counter the excessive concentration of power and wealth. We are standing together to build a world of greater equality, opportunity and dignity – where all people’s rights are respected, living within the planet’s boundaries.
The struggle to reverse rising inequality is a cause that can be won. Through supporting collective organising and linking that strengthens the power of people, civil society can help ensure that together we can start to push inequality back.
Former CIVICUS leader Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “We’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.” This is why, in the Fight Inequality Alliance, we do less lobbying and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to people; it will be won by people.
This is a lesson learnt by others who struggled against inequality in the past. As Frederick Douglass, former slave and great anti-slavery campaigner, put it in 1857: “The whole history of the progress shows that all concessions have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation want crops without ploughing up the ground; rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The good news is that people are organising and connecting. We can win. We can beat inequality. Together.
- Get in touch with the Fight Inequality Alliance through their website or Facebook page, or follow @FightInequalit1 and @benphillips76 on Twitter