John Hilary is not afraid of the big questions. As the executive director of War on Want, widely considered one of Britain’s most radical charities, he often speaks out on issues – from what he calls apartheid Palestine to the nature of global capitalism – that few other UK NGOs will touch. His new book, The Poverty of Capitalism, carries in its title conscious references to works by Karl Marx (The Poverty of Philosophy) and socialist historian EP Thompson (The Poverty of Theory).
Published last month, the book tracks what Hilary condemns as the failures of corporate globalisation and the rise of popular resistance movements worldwide. In what could seem a deliberate attempt to set himself even further apart from other NGO bosses, it also presents a sharp critique of mainstream British charities, which Hilary condemns for choosing to cosy up to corporations and governments, rather than align with grassroots movements such as La Via Campesina, the international federation of peasants’ groups.
“I think this is a particularly British problem,” says Hilary, sitting in the basement of the refurbished London warehouse that serves as War on Want’s head office. UK NGOs have become very strong and very powerful, but the sector, he says, is today overly professionalised and too focused on technical, incremental change. It has “lost its political analysis, its transformative ambition, and any radical soul”, Hilary adds.
Instead of challenging the UK government, which Hilary characterises as increasingly regressive and reductive in its approach to global development, charities are giving it “such an easy ride” and appear to have been “seduced by power”.
It was not always like this, he says, pointing to the 1980s when mainstream UK NGOs joined global movements such as those against apartheid in South Africa. At that time, Oxfam and Christian Aid were, along with War on Want, challenged by the Charity Commission for having positioned themselves politically in what Hilary describes as active solidarity with groups on the ground. “Liberation struggles were once meat and drink to the international NGO community,” he adds.
Today, big NGOs are increasingly taking a seat at the table alongside government and business. Development-speak is littered with references to partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Hilary refuses to accept this as evidence of progress and argues instead that even the most positive of such initiatives eventually give sway to the demands of the most powerful.
The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is one of the boldest experiments in this area, bringing NGOs and farmers organisations to sit alongside diplomats and company representatives to try to hammer out consensus on how to tackle food and farming challenges. While praised by many as the most inclusive global governance forum, there was palpable anxiety among some civil society delegates at the CFS summit in Rome last month that the very vocabulary of partnerships and stakeholders can gloss over and even tacitly accept the stark power imbalances between those at the table. After a week of negotiations, civil society groups refused to endorse the committee’s final recommendations on biofuels, saying the result defended the interests of industry rather than the needs of small farmers in poor countries.
Hilary has complained about mainstream UK NGOs before, and particularly around the IF campaign launched before the 2013 G8 summit, which War on Want said had been stitched up with the UK government and therefore refused to join. In The Poverty of Capitalism, which Hilary insists is not a theoretical book, he puts these complaints into context and charts how numerous attempts in recent decades to regulate and hold to account transnational corporations have given way to voluntary initiatives and corporate social responsibility projects instead.
The high water mark of voluntarism came with the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which “affirmed the principle of voluntary self-regulation as the dominant model in place of corporate accountability”, he writes. This “wholesale abdication of responsibility”, according to Hilary, has helped turn the issue of corporate accountability into little more than a public relations exercise.
Hilary winces at the suggestion his book will further isolate him from other UK NGOs. While often brought on to panels and called into debates to give the alternative view, Hilary is not the only one unhappy with the state of British development work. A group called theProgressive Development Forum, for example, of which Hilary is a member, brings together those working in the sector to debate how to reframe conversations away from aid, charity and philanthropy and instead revive narratives of global justice and the need to tackle structural drivers of poverty and inequality.
“The way the British public is being taught to think about international development is still through the prism of the Live Aid generation, the idea of the generous giver and the grateful receiver,” says Hilary. “As NGOs, we have a responsibility to look at how we are framing that story, and if we continue to reaffirm that basic charitable framing, of aid, philanthropy, generosity, then we will continue to reproduce supporters and donors who expect that.”
Recent campaigns on tax, for which some large UK charities have taken a leading role, are a potential exception, says Hilary. “Tax campaigning is an important example of the sort of structural campaigning that used to be absolutely normal. Think about the 1980s, and all the stuff that was being done on debt, linking up the debt crises in Latin America with the high street banks here, all the stuff that was done on trade and investment campaigning.”
But while tax also offers an important opportunity to link struggles in developed and developing countries, the focus has to go beyond tinkering with the system, Hilary insists. “It’s absolutely the right direction, but it needs to be more ambitious.”
If big UK charities can seem defensive, resistant to criticism and careful to stay on message with glossy pamphlets, billboards, and armies of press and PR officers, Hilary is quick to argue that, at least within organisations and NGO meetings, people do speak very openly about these issues. “Within a lot of these bigger agencies, these debates are raging. That’s what gives me hope.”
Via The Guardian: