What kinds of Movements are emerging to tackle inequality? New report

November 22, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Just been reading a really nice analysis of ‘the growing movement fighting inequality’, published this week by the Fight Inequality Alliance. Up to now, much of the discussion on inequality has either been about the problem, or the policy solutions. There’s been much less analysis of the movements springing up to respond to it.

Until now. The new report is based on 170 survey responses and 40 in-depth interviews with inequality activists around the world. There’s 40 pages of rich content – too much for a blog, but here are some highlights:

Movements are emerging in different ways


Emerging from, and in, a struggle:

“They started from Calcutta in Eastern India where there was a massive attack on hawkers [street vendors] for urban development. They were butchered and thrown off the streets, they were arrested, their stuff was looted by the police calling them illegal. So they fought back, and that major struggle that started from one city, it found echo everywhere. Once they formed this federation, a lot of these groups all started coming together. Then they converged into the National Hawkers Federation. It took a long time but now it is a national body, it has members all over India.” (Interviewee, India)

Plus groups are also emerging to represent previously excluded perspectives and interests, e.g. rural teachers or women activists; or broad-based change or campaigning organisations, including national and international NGOs and organizations dedicated to building coalitions and/or a stronger civil society.

Who is leading and participating in movements against inequalities?

The groups with the strongest grassroots participation and leadership largely started that way — with control and leadership by those affected.

[In contrast, watch out for]

Practices that undermine grassroots leadership

Many civil society organisations or coalitions aim to support grassroots community efforts. But in practice, their approach may work against this, underpinned by implicit ideas about who has expertise and can influence. For example, a national group may want to support communities who are involved in a common struggle. They may do this by trying to “micromanage” how local groups campaign or organise, rather than follow and support local leadership. This may particularly happen when groups feel the urgency of the campaign and feel they don’t have time to work at the slower pace of community organising. However, this can again reinforce existing dynamics of who has power and control.

“I think what is missing is the involvement of the people at the core of fighting this inequality. The people that suffer are sidelined and are not in the discussions. So it’s more of an academic discussion and imposing of solutions.” (Interviewee, Zambia)

Practicalities that reflect underlying power dynamics – who has access to technology, proximity to powerful institutions, speaks dominant languages – can entrench leadership and power for individuals who are in cities and have more education, wealth and privilege. These can be further reinforced as movements engage internationally.

“In India we are the dominating group because we are based in New Delhi. We are English speaking, we are good on the internet, chatting on Skype calls and we use Zoom, Facebook and twitter. Obviously you don’t expect all that from small groups that are mass based in small cities where internet and phone connection is very bad. It’s not easy for them to travel or to get visas. So it is skewed not because of design but because some of us who are privileged with all these facilities have an upper hand. And even though we don’t dominate naturally, we will be the choice as someone in London will prefer to talk to me rather than a farmer from an Adivasi in Garkan who I can’t even reach on the phone, forget about Skype.” (Interviewee, India)

[and then a really interesting (and hopeful) section on}

Where are the movements holding and gaining ground?

There are groups that are gaining ground on those agendas in many places—building movements and coalitions, reshaping the narrative, and influencing legislative and policy change and implementation.

The most common positive and proactive successes were influencing changes in governmental or inter-governmental policy or practice. These include changes in national budgets, new laws on tax transparency, national peace policies, enforcement of laws on Dalit rights and minimum wages, recognition of LGBTQI rights, increasing the legal age for marriage, and new governance institutions. Interviewees also highlighted achieving right to information laws, domestic violence laws and marriage equality or LGBTQI rights.

Report graphic

At the same time, it is important to recognise that changes in law or policy are often the most visible, understandable signs of progress; they are often the kinds of markers that funders want to see to know that progress is being made. Of course, the story is much more complicated than that.

Stopping negative change

Stopping major projects that would displace people from ancestral lands, undermining attempts to pass laws that would have the effect of entrenching inequality further or defending citizens and movements against attempts to limit their ability to speak out and organise. These wins have a real impact on peoples’ lives but they also highlight the level of energy and resources needed to stop things getting worse, rather than to make conditions better. They point to the current combination of rising authoritarianism and corporate and elite political capture in many countries that is fueling, rather than reducing, inequalities. 

We had a hydroelectric dam that was going to be built in the Tapajós River and it’s not going to be built there anymore. It was going to be built in an indigenous area of the Munduruku, and it was the fight of the Munduruku. We were supporting their fight and [working] together with them. [That was] what made this dam not

constructed: people being by their side on that.” (Interviewee, Brazil).

Great stuff, these are my inadequate personal selections – much better to read it for yourselves. And Kudos to the LSE International Inequalities Institute’s Atlantic Fellows scheme for funding the research.

And here’s my recent podcast with Njoki Njehu, the FIA’s Pan African coordinator
November 22, 2019
Duncan Green