Is Campaigning on Inequality harder? Here’s what some of the world’s inequality activists said

February 10, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

In the run up to digital Davos this year, I got into a conversation with Jenny Ricks of the Fight Inequality Alliance about the huge growth in campaigning on inequality. On the one hand, inequality is clearly an important and pressing issue (I won’t rehearse the arguments here).

But it’s also really multi-faceted – wealth, income, but also gender, ethnicity, access to services like healthcare and education. Which can make it a bit slippery and rhetorical, and harder to link to specific solutions. So isn’t it harder to campaign on than a single thing, like violence against women, or trade union rights, or poor quality schools? Or does an umbrella concept like inequality boost the possibilities in some way?

Jenny offered to ask some of the activists in the Alliance. Here’s what they said:

Inequality helps build broad alliances: Minhaj Jeenah (FIA South Africa)

South Africa has a powerful history of building broad-based alliances. Alliances between workers, school learners and township communities (all engaging in different struggles) brought the apartheid government to its knees in the ‘70s. Alliances between NGOs, community movements, organised labour and progressive scientists ensured access to ARVs during the AIDS pandemic. Alliances between university students and workers built one of the most important movements in democratic South Africa in 2016 [#FeesMustFall].

So, our history shows the importance (and possibility) of building broad-based alliances by linking different struggles. All of these were possible by giving structural meaning to these struggles through (most importantly) relying on grassroots organising. Similarly, in FIA our role is to link issues of housing, water access, unemployment, GBV etc to a failed and unequal economic system and making that real.

The only way to make multi-faceted problems solvable: Daniel Mittler, Political Director at Greenpeace International

“It´s both harder and essential. At one level, it is true that campaigns can have fastest success if they are focussed on one specific ask. It is easier to get Apple to eliminate toxic chemicals from its products than it is to end the overconsumption of electronic goods overall.

But if campaigns stay at that ‘easier to win’ level, they simply fail to deliver what is needed. They can start needed conversations in our societies, but if they are not backed up with systemic demands, they end up treating symptoms, not solving problems. And inequality is one of the underlying problems we simply have to solve if we want to effectively address the other crises we face – on health as much as on the environment. As Oxfam has shown, the richest 10% of the world’s population (c.630 million people) were – from 1990 to 2015 – responsible for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions. So, obviously, without redistributing resources, and ending greed, we will simply fail on climate.

On the policy side, it also turns out that the very same rules – on trade, finance, debt or patents – drive inequality and other key crises. And that´s why we have come together as the Fight Inequality Alliance to change all these rules, together. Everyone working on their part of the puzzle. But together backing communities on the frontlines to shift power so that they can deliver their own solutions at speed. Working together is the only way to make multi-faceted problems solvable.

A balancing act: Anjela Taneja (FIA India)

It’s a mixed bag. On one level, it is easier to mobilize citizens around inequality, since everyone feels that the issue is important for them. Citizens feel it in their lives. Professional activists or academics feel the issue is also important for their individual sector. The sheer starkness of the wealth gap stat, repeated each year around Davos makes it easy for a large enough group of people to agree that something has to be done about it.

However, this inclusiveness of the concept also means that it may be more difficult to sustain the coalition and keep mobilization going in the longer term, especially if the intention is to change something tangible.  Everyone expects this solidarity to translate into concrete action to address their own dimension which makes it awkward at times. One just has to keep trying to balance the needs of the key constituencies of the mobilization to ensure all manifestations receive due attention.

A cultural struggle that brings us together: Ana Vicencio (FIA Mexico

Inequality is fought on different fronts. This problem crosses all spheres of individual and community life and to eradicate it, unlike other social evils, it is first necessary to point it out in all its manifestations: in the violence, exclusion, oppression and injustice experienced by women, young people, people of sexual diversity, workers, peasants, afro descendants, indigenous people and migrants.

The fight against inequality is first and foremost a cultural struggle to put an end to historically created systems and practices replicated by institutions, but also inadvertently by many of us. Unlike the campaigns with a specific objective, the fight against inequality finds common ground, highlights intersectionalities and unites collective efforts that previously acted in isolation. This fight strengthens the capacity of the people to defend their rights. This fight brings us together, and this fight also needs us together.

Inequality makes everyone feel part of a larger struggle. Daisy Mwilima (FIA Zambia)

All Inequality struggles are intertwined. Gender inequality, education, health, income, you name it. They all affect each other in one way or another. Addressing only one of them may make some change in the world but to what ends?

Although we seemingly put Inequality under one umbrella, the alliance consists of people who are working on various forms of inequality in their individual capacities and the angle the alliance brings to these struggles is people power and solidarity.

What sets us apart as an alliance is the fact that our messaging is people-centered, those living in the frontlines of inequality are given an opportunity to highlight and express their lived experiences in their own language. As compared to speaking on behalf of the ‘voiceless’, we believe everyone has a voice and we hand them a place at the table or a platform to speak for themselves. This makes everyone feel ownership of the movement, but most importantly, everyone feels they are part of the bigger struggle, as every form f inequality is treated as important to the struggle.

Specific campaigns within Inequality can engage the emotions. Jeea Chadha (FIA UK)

I think that when we need to invigorate people to support a cause, we must engage their emotions; their sympathy and empathy for others. Often a large conceptual idea such as ‘fighting inequality’ can be hard to engage others’ emotions, as some may not understand what such a large concept actually means or what inequality looks like.

But by having a specific campaign within an aspect of inequality, we can create a more real, human campaign which we can use to engage others in support. Adding to this idea of keeping a campaign simple, in a society where everyone is overwhelmed with knowledge at their fingertips, it can be effective if we have a short and simple message and aim that we seek to achieve. In this way, we can ensure many get the message and understand it, so that we can stand in solidarity and support one another. 

February 10, 2021
Duncan Green