INTERVIEWS

Ben Phillips: “The power of people can challenge the people in power”

23 Oct , 2014  

Text: Arturo Nicolás | Versión en castellano

In the middle of September, we had the great opportunity to visit the Oxfam‘s headquarters in London. Our purpose was simple but really exciting: To have a deep conversation about fight against poverty with one of the most experienced experts in this field. His name is Ben Phillips, and he, strongly commited with his job, is the Oxfam Campaigns and Policy Director

We chatted about many different topics: capitalism, consumerism, the psychological reaction to poverty, CSR, communities, etc.. Our talk could lead to many different conclusions but if there is something clear is that empowering people is the best way to fight against inequality. It is possible. We can beat extreme poverty.


Arturo Nicolás: First we could draw a picture of the current situation in the fight against poverty. You have lived in several cities and countries (Washington DC, New Delhi, South Africa, etc.), so you have a holistic vision of the issues. Where are we at the moment?

Ben Phillips: First let’s start with the good news. When I used to travel to villages in Africa and Asia, I would usually find most of the children were not in the school, and now, when I go to the same villages, most of the children, at least primary school-aged children, are in school. That’s a really big shift. I also hear from mothers on my visits fewer stories than I used to hear about their children dying when they’re very young. Globally, about a decade or so ago, something like 12 million kids used to die before their fifth birthday and now it’s about six million, and about 120 million children used to be out of primary school and now it’s about 60 million. And that correlates with my own experiences of seeing how people are getting on. For those people that is an enormous progress, though obviously many have been left behind.

But rising and extreme inequality present a major challenge to this progress in tackling poverty. To a certain degree, the progress of time, technology, economic growth, has enabled a number of countries to reduce poverty – that’s not completely true, but it’s generally true of extreme poverty in a number of places. But what we see now, as the culmination over three decades when the economic policies applied by many countries have increasingly exacerbated inequality, is that the link between growth and poverty reduction is now weakening. So we see several countries technically move from being poor countries to not being poor countries, and yet for poor people, things either don’t change or in some areas get worse.

ben Phillips presenting

Ben Phillips, Oxfam Campaigns and Policy Director

Let’s take Zambia. Officially, Zambia used to be a poor country, and officially now it’s no longer a poor country, it’s a middle-income country. But the number of poor people is now greater than when it was a poor country. What’s happened is the lion’s share of the benefits of growth in Zambia has come to a minority of wealthy Zambians and to outsiders like the mining sector, who take advantage of the country and don’t pay a fair contribution in tax. There has been in too many countries an approach to economic development that has said “let us give those of the top more and more and eventually crumbs will fall off the table and feed the hungry” – and that hasn’t worked. Likewise in Nigeria and Angola, people joke with too much truth that they are rich countries full of poor people – indeed the former Prime Minister of India said the same about his country. That is becoming an increasingly normalised experience.

But the hopeful thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way, it’s completely preventable, inequality is not an intrinsic part of economic growth. In fact, economic growth is enabled by tackling inequality. The positive story is that if we get serious about tackling inequality, extreme poverty can be defeated and we can improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. To do this we need to reconnect economics with focusing on the human and seeing the human as central, and seeing any economic or political or social policies as instruments of the human, rather than seeing the human as an instrument of an economic policy.

A.N.: It seems that we are going through a paradigm shift: Some people are talking about the end of capitalism…

B.P.: Personally, I disagree with the idea that we are likely to see an end to capitalism, I think instead we can interpret capitalism in a range of ways. There are many different forms of capitalism. From what some people call the North American or Anglo-Saxon model to the Scandinavian model, to the Japanese or South Korean model, there are many different approaches. The Scandinavian model has delivered very well for people. At the beginning of the 20th century there was extreme poverty in Scandinavia – but they achieved prosperity because they’ve invested in all of their people. And their growth has been consistently high, perhaps not despite the fact of their tax policies, but because of them, because they use that for reinvestment. The East Asian Tigers as well, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, showed the prosperity that you could get by trying to boost economic growth and trade but doing so in a way that redistributes, that benefits all. I think that that approach to capitalism – which was also the approach of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US in the 1930s – has been successful in improving the living standards of millions of ordinary people. What hasn’t worked is market fundamentalism.

Interestingly, what free market theorists say they most value are being lost in the era of extreme inequality. Let’s take the American dream – it is more and more out of reach. Interestingly, the dream that an ordinary person can get to the top is actually much more likely to be realised in Scandinavia than in America. What they call the American Dream should really be called the Swedish Dream or the Danish Dream. Or let’s take competition. What we see at the moment in Mexico is one person, the richest person in the world, Carlos Slim, who controls the telecom system and has no significant competition; it’s a form of monopoly. In the global banking sector too we see oligopoly. That is very much a distortion of what people like Adam Smith would have wanted to see. We see very dominant corporate control that reduces competition and prevents opportunity. That approach also led in part to the crash, and we’ve seen the consequences of it.

What we critique I think is not capitalism but market fundamentalism and the overbearing power of elites and of a small number of corporations.

A.N.: Poverty’s structural causes in developing countries are directly linked with poverty’s causes in Europe and North America. Are people aware of this? I mean, consumerism is one of the main drivers of this global crisis.

B.P.: One of the intriguing things in what happened as result of the financial crisis is that you can go two ways in your reaction, and the public is doing this: nobody is happy with the status quo and people feel that the establishment has failed to deliver for them. Some of those people are finding solidarity with each other. They are questioning the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Commission austerity policies imposed on Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece which forced them to reduce living standards, where we even had the Troika – the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission – suggest to Greece that maybe they shouldn’t have a weekend because perhaps they can’t afford it. People are resisting that, they are criticizing it. They are also beginning to identify their situation with the situation of other people. I think many people in Southern Europe now understand that the structural adjustment that was imposed on Latin America is what they are going through now. And people also understand that if you look how some big corporations avoid tax it is similar in the global North and South. So in Zambia, Glencore, a Swiss mining company, claims not to make very much profit in Zambia, they claim that they make most of the profit in Switzerland, but there’s no copper in Switzerland so profit is clearly made in Zambia, but the Zambians don’t benefit because of an accountancy system where you can say you make money somewhere else. That same system is used by Google and Amazon and Starbucks on Europeans, so we’ve realised that on tax avoidance there isn’t a competition between Africans and Europeans, but rather both of us have been exploited by corporations that have no nationality, no patriotism, no ideals.

In our best moments there’s a recognition of that solidarity. In our worst moments we see people turn on other people, we see people turn on refugees, immigrants, people who look different. Those are the two reactions that people have to massive economic crises – you either expand fraternity and find that there are many like you and that we need to work together to make the economy work for all, or you look for somebody to hate, somebody who is different. I hope that people choose as they did in America in 1930’s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to cooperate more, and not choose as they did in central Europe in the 1930’s, to hate more. And I don’t know which way it will go.

A.N.: “The larger the social gap, the less compassion is shown.” Is this true?

B.P.: It is true, we see it in a range of ways. One is in some psychological experiments people have done on people. There is a fascinating one where a round of the board game monopoly is openly fixed, with one player given much more money at the beginning and unfair rules devised. Then they film the game and they find that during the game the unfairly advantaged player starts to say that they’re successful because they’re better, even though they know the game was fixed at the beginning. They change, we’re all vulnerable to that change.

Another story I was told, which is quite funny but quite sad, is of a psychological experiment where they said to people: “You are here for an experiment, there are some candies on the table, please don’t eat the candies because we’re giving them to some children who will be here in an hour’s time for the next experiment.” Apparently, the more extremely rich you are, the more likely you are to eat the candies that were meant for those children. In other words, the rules can stop meaning anything to you. We’ve also seen that sometimes extremely wealthy people when they see photos of homeless people for example, the neuro-reaction is less often the reaction that most people show when they see other people suffering, so they’ve stopped to see that person as a person. Danny Dorling, an Oxford University professor, says that he worries at the gap can get so big people cease to identify with each other. We often find in some countries that the elites literally speak different languages than the majority.

Ben side

“You need to have your eye on the long term, but if you do nothing in the short term, then you kill hope and you’re not going anywhere.”

At a very fancy event in Bogotá, Colombia, I was introduced to some of the guests as “This is Ben and he is from London”, and most of the guests said straight away “I’ve been to London” and quite a few of them said “I’ve lived in London”. Then the host said “Ben has just been to the village festival (in a town that was just one and a half hours from Bogotá)“. None of the guests had ever been to that town. Only half of the guests knew where that town was. So, for the elite of Bogotá, London is closer than a provincial town. That social segregation, which is one of the consequences of extreme inequality, is very damaging. Poor people in Colombia I met from the villages and slums talked about the rich as living in a different universe and interestingly this is a common experience I’ve seen in India, in South Africa, in Pakistan, in countries around the world – that between elites and the majority there emerges a sense of separateness. There is a risk of people ceasing to realise that we are all just like each other and every life is equally valuable. The richest children and the poorest children don’t play together, don’t go on the bus together, don’t go to school together, don’t eat together, and this is a risk of breaking us apart.

A.N.: From your experience in Oxfam, what are the most effective ways to address poverty?

B.P.: The first is to recognise the extraordinary power of ordinary people. You know, nobody has nothing. Many people have no money, but nobody has nothing to contribute – people have social connections, they have pride, they have their culture, they have passion, they have a sense of right and wrong. So everyone have those assets, and the power of the people can challenge the people in power. We’ve seen in the history of social movements, from the suffragettes movement for votes for women, to Indian independence, to the Civil Rights struggle in America, to South African freedom, and now in the campaign for gay rights, how ordinary people can take on the power of elites and create more just societies.

I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that you need to start by identifying and supporting the strengths of the communities that you work with, not focus on the weaknesses, and see those who are most oppressed not as victims but as survivors, not as people begging for rescue, but as people looking for friends, friends to support their struggle against poverty.

The other lesson I have learnt that people in what we call the North and what we call the South are not so different. The idea that there is there is this esoteric science called development for people in the South, whereas those same issues are ones of economics or politics for people in the North, is false.

The majority of people are intrinsically attracted to the idea of wanting to care, wanting to help, wanting to look after each other. That’s incredibly positive.

I think we can be optimistic that through movements we beat the slave trade, we beat colonialism, and we can beat extreme inequality. There are some powerful people who would seek to obstruct, but the power of the majority will, I think, in the end, enable us to form not perfect societies, but fairer societies. These things are not dreams, they are hopes that we can turn into plans, and plans we can turn into reality.

A.N.: Where is the balance between long term strategies and short term actions?

B.P.: I think you need to have your eye on the long term, but if you do nothing in the short term, then you kill hope and you’re not going anywhere. Let’s take reducing inequality. We need to hold on to that as a big vision, but today we will want to help people get a better wage for their work, or we will want to protect women from discrimination, or we will want to ensure that every child can go to school, or we will want to ensure that those companies that don’t pay tax are made to pay tax. All of those things are steps towards social justice, none of them on their own is enough. There isn’t one answer to creating a fairer society, we need a whole range of things, but we need to start somewhere by doing one of them, partly to show the way, partly because we need the hope and partly because right now so many people are suffering so much, they need something today and it’s not fair to promise them only jam tomorrow. We need to deliver something for people right now.

My approach and Oxfam’s approach is that you need to be right there in the here and now, and you need you need to be strengthening people’s power and tackling those bigger causes. Desmond Tutu asks people to imagine they are going past the river and they see some people drowning. The first thing to do is jump in the river and help pull them out. The second thing might be teach them how to swim, because then they’ll be less likely to drown. But when you listen to the people in the river they’ll teach you that the reason they’re in the river is because somebody is pushing them in the river and together you need to stop that person pushing them. Now we have to do all three of those things. I think that’s what Oxfam and other social justice organisations do. We need to hold on to tomorrow but we also need to deliver something for people today. The most successful movements have always done that.

A.N.: Sometimes those who push people into the river are big companies. One of the main reasons why I love Oxfam is its attitude with companies: “Oxfam praises companies when they do right, campaigns when they do wrong, helps when they want to do better. All three are needed.” Does it work?

B.P.: Yes, it does. I’ll give you an example. In many parts of the world that what people call title, the piece of paper that says “that land is yours” is not very secure. Some people have a piece of paper, but it can be taken away from them, and some people don’t even have a piece of paper, but they’ve been on that land for generations. People live in fear that one day, a powerful company will be able to throw them off their land so it can grow sugar, or soya, or sometimes just to keep hold of the land, because the value will go up and then the company can sell it.

We’ve been helping people challenging such land grabs for many years, and they felt that they had not enough negotiating power with those companies. Many of the companies who acquire land sell their products on to multinationals. And the multinationals are very concerned by consumers and their brand, and strive to be seen as acting well. We challenged Coca-Cola and Pepsi, saying to them: “Your policies are a not strong enough to prevent the companies you buy sugar from taking land away from people. So there’s a risk: when people drink Coke and Pepsi, they could be drinking land that has been taken from the poor.”

We created a viral Youtube video that had people drinking cans and in the cans was earth. We had some difficult conversations with the companies. And both of them changed those policies, and when they did we said to them: “We’ll keep holding you to account but, for now, thank you, well done,” and I met with the some of the leaders of those companies and they said to us: “We really appreciate the fact you challenged us, but when we changed, you thanked us, we really appreciate that.”And when we talk to the farmers in those lands they say: “it’s amazing that some multinational buyers are now insisting of the companies who sell them sugar, ‘prove that this land you have is really and fairly yours, that if people moved off they did so by choice’. So finally some sugar companies are talking to us farmers, because some of their key buyers are saying they have to.”

So it really works, big companies do change their policies because of the pressure of consumer power. Now, farmers in many places are stronger than they used to be. This is not about us saving those farmers. The most important work is by the farmers, but we helped by taking on the buyers, fairly, challenging them. We’re not against any company, but we are against bad practice and we’ve shown that by challenging companies on this, you can make a difference.

A.N.: In relation to this, what do you think about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? Could it be a warm space to facilitate networking between companies and charities or it is only a kind of greenwashing?

B.P.: The word Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) means that the corporation should be socially responsible, just like a human being should be socially responsible. But CSR is used by some companies to mean “I will do enormous harm and I will then do a little piece of good, and when I do that good I will make sure that there is a photograph.” That’s not real CSR.

One very wise business leader said to me: “I refuse to say that the CSR is a department in the company responsible for giving away 1% of profits. If CSR is 1% of what we do, then 99% of what we do is irresponsible.” So what we say to companies is if you want to give to charities, if you want to do projects and you want to enable your employees to volunteer, these are all good things, but CSR means the core of your company’s business needs to be responsible. That means for example paying your workers a decent wage, not paying your executives a ridiculous and insulting over the-top wage, and having a fair balance between the two. Respect the community in which you work, don’t destroy the land and the water or the air. Pay your tax. Don’t find a clever way to pretend that when you worked in Africa you were really working in Luxemburg or Liechtenstein or Monaco or the British Virgin Islands. Pay your tax because you benefit from government and society so should contribute to it. If on top of that you would like to do some projects, great, but that is just an add-on, true CSR is about how your core business improves the life of people, and that is what we talk to companies about.

They can be quite surprised because sometimes when companies first meet they think that as a charity we are going to ask them for a cheque, but we want to discuss their core business, we are not interested in greenwashes.

A.N.: Communities: Are they the new reference group in our society?

B.P.: We all need communities. It is through community that the individual finds their strength. When we think about the things that we are good at, we know we have the ability because a friend or a teacher or a neighbour helped to bring that out in us. Particularly in times of crisis people realise how important community is. I think there is also a basic human need for community. Pundits talk about online communities, and online could be a wonderful way to connect people, but what is also really important is offline, real time, physical, on the ground, communities, people getting together with their clubs, or their neighbours, or their faith groups, or because they want to celebrate, or to protest, or to organise. There has been a rediscovery of the value of that, the value of something bigger than ourselves and the recognition that we’re not striving for independence, we’re striving for interdependence.

A.N.: Do you mind if I ask you why do you love your job?

B.P.: Sure. I’m really lucky. So many amazing people have been part of Oxfam’s story, and when I meet them, people who developed ways to stop people dying after disasters by ensuring that the water is kept clean, or people who courageously challenged Apartheid in South Africa, they have been my heroes and I’m so honoured to be able to meet them. I also get to meet amazing grassroots leaders like the women I met in Pakistan who are standing up for their rights to land, education and justice. It’s such a privilege to meet Oxfam staff working in places like Gaza, getting water and immediate help for people and challenging the blockade that has caused huge suffering. That in my work, in my “9 to 5”, though it’s never 9 to 5, I get to be part of something that is so special and so wonderful, for that to be a job is just amazing. I’m blessed to get to do this.


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