From Dandora to Davos – organising from the grassroots and puncturing the elite

January 24, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

With the inequality crisis in focus as the world’s elite gathers in Davos, the Fight Inequality Alliance’s Global Convenor, Jenny Ricks (@jenny_ricks ), examines where real change is likely to come from

Inequality, and sage words about needing to tackle it, are once again ringing through the halls of Davos. As a counterpoint to this, we in the Fight Inequality Alliance are holding our global week of action calling for an ‘End to the Age of Greed’. So it’s as good a time as any to assess where we are in the fight against inequality. Let me offer a couple of thoughts.

There’s reasons to be cheerful over how far the agenda has come: Policy demands galore – check. Eye watering stats – check. Business and political elites name checking the issue regularly – check. Sustainable development goal – check. This is all progress (and a recognition of how serious this is from a number of perspectives) and a familiar trajectory for many campaigns. However, it’s clear that we’ve won the debate, but not the fight.

Davos remains gloriously hypocritical on inequality. The contrast between the concerned words and the (in)action (none or negative) has been well skewered by economist Branko Milanovic, while the over-optimism of elites on an economic ‘recovery’ has been revealed by Guardian Economics editor Larry Elliott, so I’ll spare you the repeat. This will not self correct. The arguments are obvious – and we know it is ridiculous to keep looking to Davos for the answers. Turkeys and Christmas?

This is now the fifth year in a row of ‘Oxfam’s annual Davos stat day’ (it’s a Thing, go with it) – it does a great job of crystallising for us the depth of the mess we’re in, in a way I can talk to anyone about quickly, and providing a wedge into what sits beneath – the wider, systemic and intersectional problem. [And it is very important that we understand inequality beyond just wealth and income – patriarchy, racism, neoliberalism, exploitation etc give inequality long, deep and mutually reinforcing roots across the world. And people have experienced and long organised against existing inequalities of race, caste, gender, disability, sexual orientation or identity, class and ethnicity – this informs how we organise and respond.] But stats only take us so far. And for people living on the frontlines of inequality across the world, change is in short supply.

So where is the change coming from? Wrestle your eyes away from the acres of media coverage and social media scrolling that Oxfam’s media team must be basking in this week. It’s hard to do, but let’s stick with it for a few minutes.

Inequality is at heart an issue of power. We (including Oxfam), founded the Fight Inequality Alliance because we knew that change comes when People Power becomes stronger than those driving and benefitting from the status quo. The policy prescriptions that would do the most to ensure societies that work for all are largely known and already campaigned on by many. Women’s rights groups, social movements, young people, trade unions, environmental groups, NGOs, have all been tackling aspects of the inequality agenda for a long time in their struggles for a just and equitable world. But given the intense concentration of power and wealth in so few hands across the globe, the dangerous sweep of right wing extremism, sexism, austerity, misogyny and discrimination, accompanied by a crackdown on democratic rights and freedoms, these struggles needed to join up and build collective power on a larger scale. So this is what we are focussing on – those on the frontlines of inequality organising from below and across borders to shift the balance of power to create the just, equal and sustainable world we’re all fighting for. Key to this is more organising and collective action, led by women, young people, social movements.

Which leads me to Dandora. This week has seen lots of interest in an event the Kenya chapter of the Alliance are organising in Dandora, a giant rubbish dump in Nairobi, and home to large numbers of its poorest residents. It tells the story from the ‘other’ mountain, and the realities of the local ‘experts’ there who live the inequality referred to in Davos, day in and day out. See the video below from ‘the other mountain’ in Dandora, with Ashura Mciteka & Nelson Munyiri on why ordinary people are uniting to #fightinequality :“We have billionaires on the #Davos mountain talking about issues that are affecting people like us on the garbage mountain.” she says. The end of the week of action will play host to the #UsawaKenya festival (Equal Kenya) there, headlined by hip hop artist and Dandora resident Juliani. Journalists have been interested in this story. It feels new and fresh.

Why? Because the problem of inequality is known by all and lived daily by the many. The grotesqueness (is this a word?) of the current levels of wealth are unsustainable and morally repugnant. But this must lead to change – a new system will be born, but it will be citizens that drive it. They are tired of the same conversations. On some level, people recognize instinctively that the status quo is wrong, but have felt that we are lacking solutions, as Martin Luther King warned us. Partly we have been looking in the wrong place for answers. It’s time to listen to the people who know the most about inequality.

And it’s not just Kenya. Protests happening around the world this week, from Mexico to South Africa to Tanzania to Indonesia to Vietnam to Denmark and many beyond.

There’s an appetite to hear the counter story. This is a good start, and a journey we’ll continue on over the coming years.

The fight against inequality is well under way. But change will be fought from the grassroots and connected to the national and global, not the other way round. Adjust your gaze.