We know what policies can fix the COVID-19 inequality emergency. But only people power can win them

By Ben Phillips, Advisor to the United Nations, governments and civil society organisations, former Campaigns Director for Oxfam and for ActionAid, and co-founder of  the Fight Inequality Alliance. He is the author of “How to Fight Inequality

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

COVID-19 did not create the inequality crisis. But COVID-19 is seeing inequality metastasise into the most socially dangerous global emergency since World War II.  The problem is clear. The OECD Secretary-General has rightly drawn the analogy with the Post-War reconstruction and Marshall Plan to illustrate the level of ambition needed. Opening the OECD conference on “Confronting Planetary Emergencies”, President Michael D Higgins of Ireland set out the need for a “radical departure” from “decades of unfettered neoliberalism” which have left people “without protection as to basic necessities of life, security and the ability to participate”. As he noted, “it is no longer sufficient to describe, however brilliantly, systemic failure. We must have the courage to speak out and work for the alternatives.”

Those alternatives are clear too. The OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee has set out with crystal clarity some of the policy shifts needed to fix the inequality emergency including: moving away from austerity to well-resourced public services; providing social protection for all irrespective of employment status; ensuring universal health care; strengthening workers’ rights; tackling tax havens; rebalancing tax revenues between wealth, income and consumption; investing in public R&D; and tackling oligopolies and excessive market concentration.

The challenge is not in knowing what needs to be done, it is in ensuring that leaders do it. For my new book, How to Fight Inequality, I looked at when, across history, inequality had been successfully tackled before and what led to those successes. I found that inequality never self-corrected, and was never resolved through the grace of those in authority, but was instead beaten by people power. All of us who seek ways out of the current crisis, therefore, need to recognise people’s organising not as some noisy interference in the way of neat governance but as our only hope for ensuring the transformative change required.

It’s important to emphasise that the rationale for building collective power from below does not depend on having a pessimistic assessment of the personal moral character of the world’s leaders. Indeed far too much time is lost, by first trying to work out if people in power are personally irredeemably not nice – as if that is what determines whether or not we need to organise. Even with the best leaders, the fight against inequality cannot be won unless ordinary people organise and take on the power of those at the top. Every victory against inequality began with people standing up and being labelled troublemakers, grew through organising and alliance-building, and was sealed by not only taking on individual policies but by creating a new story.

The big reductions in inequality in the 2000s in Latin America were all rooted in collective pressure. From landless workers’ movements in Brazil to indigenous people’s movements in Bolivia, building collective power was the key to securing change. As the coconut pickers I met in Brazil taught me about the victories they had won, ‘organizadas somos fortes’  or ‘organised we are powerful.’

So too, the progressive policies enacted from the 1930s to the 1970s in the U.S. They came from trade unions, black organisations, churches and other progressive grassroots groups coming together, in Martin Luther King’s words, ‘to organise our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.’

In the 1950s and 1960s, many countries who won independence took bold action against inequality, and while it is often the names of great national leaders that dominate how major steps to tackle inequality are remembered, organising from below was key to their realisation. In Ghana, organising by cocoa workers not only led to the cocoa board protecting their incomes, but also led to the rollout of free education, first to cocoa workers and later to everyone.

Jay Naidoo, who founded the trade union coalition in South Africa which helped bring down apartheid, told me this: ‘It is not about how brilliant your argument is. What matters is the balance of power between your side, the people’s side, in the confrontation and negotiations with the other side, the side of the elite.’

This is not to say that we will beat inequality through organising; it is rather to say that this is the only way that we have in the past, and the only way that gives us a chance now. An old slogan of mobilisers goes: “the people united will never be defeated.” In fact, the people united are often defeated, but the people divided are always defeated. 

Leaders cannot fix things from above without what John Lewis, civil rights activist and later Congressman, called “good trouble” from below. And citizens cannot wait for leaders to find wisdom or courage.

The good news is that we are seeing a flourishing of activism today. The workers who are successfully organising within industries that had been written off by outsiders as unorganisable like domestic work, hawker markets, and in app-based taxi, delivery and service companies; grassroots women’s groups building collective power; progressive faith movements insisting on the dignity of all; community groups holding leaders to account for the delivery of essential services; the worldwide rising for Black Lives Matter; the climate justice movement led by young people across the world. And the coming together of these movements in what the Revd William Barber calls ‘Fusion Coalitions’. We do not need to “start”: we need to help more people join in.

We, the people, are the people we’ve been waiting for.