Global Policy Forum

Louder than Words


By Matthew Tempest

August 5, 2004

Mark Curtis is a man with a secret. The new head of the World Development Movement is frank about his belief that lobbying ministers is a "waste of time" and his intention to turn to the type of direct action made famous by Greenpeace and anti-globalisation activists. But what he is planning, he won't say. "We've seen the limits of traditional campaigning. It is the failure of the development lobby. We're now considering peaceful direct action," he tells me in the WDM's cramped south London headquarters. Boyish but academic, Mr Curtis does not only want the WDM to become more forceful; he also wants it to become more iconoclastic in its choice of campaigns, questioning the roles of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and even the benefits of aid itself.

His reaction to the renewal this weekend of the Doha trade talks, which the developing world spectacularly allowed to collapse in the Mexican resort of Cancun last September, is characteristically sceptical. "I think this time the developing nations took a calculated risk that they could get some concessions on the west's subsidies on agriculture and cotton, whereas if the talks just collapsed there would be none," he says.

"But these are just rhetorical concessions, not political commitments, and the past evidence is that these promises will never be implemented." But hasn't the government made progress on increasing aid and debt reduction? Aren't these things of which Labour party members would justifiably be proud? "They would," he replies - "and they would be absolutely, diametrically wrong. "Labour has increased aid and been more progressive on debt relief, but all debt relief and, increasingly, aid is now tied to liberalisation. "They are quite open and explicit about this; it is called "conditionality", and our view is that until conditionality ends there is no point increasing aid. Indeed, it's questionable whether aid is a good thing."

Of his planned move into the world of abseiling protesters and street-stopping demos, he says: "Development has never done this before. The environmentalists have; the peace campaigners against the arms trade have; but we have always been mild, and now we need to ratchet up a few gears. It's the final straw, but we've got to do it. "Too many large NGOs have become close to government. Too much time is spent on inside lobbying, which has limited impact, and not enough telling their supporters that government is part of the problem."

The World Development Movement is not quite like other aid organisations: it does not directly fund relief in the developing world in the manner of an Oxfam or a Christian Aid, and a £20 donation to the WDM will not pay for a cataract operation in Africa or a clean water well in central America. Instead, funded mostly by its 14,000 members, the organisation campaigns for reform of the global economic system established at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, of which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are two pillars. Mr Curtis, a former academic and research fellow at the establishment foreign policy thinktank Chatham House, led Christian Aid before taking over at the WDM two months ago. He puts it this way: "The US and the UK developed in the 19th century behind trade barriers. So have some recent successful economies, such as South Korea, Taiwan and even Japan, whereas Africa is getting poorer under liberalisation. "Protecting infant industries is now against the rules of the World Trade Organisation, yet it is the way countries build up their economies in the first place before entering into 'free trade'. Nobody actually believes in free trade: it is something you impose on others."

He won't name names, but Mr Curtis believes it is time to change the approach of the charities he calls the household names of aid and development. Lobbying the government for more debt relief for impoverished nations, increases in aid and reform of the WTO must give way to outright direct action, he argues. The big five British overseas aid groups, Oxfam, Save the Children, Cafod, Action Aid and Christian Aid, have meetings four times a year with the secretary of state for international development, currently Hilary Benn. Curtis believes the access WDM gets is a pointless without a groundswell of public pressure for abolition, not just reform, of the WTO. The final straw came at the start of this month, when Patricia Hewitt, the secretary of state for trade and industry, published a white paper called Making Globalisation a Force for Good. "This is the big government statement, and after 10 years it's simply a pure Thatcherite agenda," he says.

He also has strong words for the mainstream media in Britain, which often portray the "anti-globalisation movement" - those involved prefer the more positive term "global justice movement" - as "a bunch of white, middle-class lefties". In fact, he says, the "protests of the south" are disgracefully unrepresented in the UK. (The preferred terminology these days in the development movement is "the north" for the western, developed world and "the "south" or "majority world" for the developing nations.) "We've published a report cataloguing 234 protests in 34 countries in the south. What you see going on in the north is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the world is opposed to the corporate invasions of their country. "What is encouraging is that we are living through the birth of the biggest, most unprecedented mass movement in history, the global justice movement. "A hundred thousand people from around the globe are attending the world social forums and realising that what links our, admittedly smaller, problems in Europe - work insecurity, climate change, privatisation of public services - is the same model of corporate control. They pay a higher price, but we are all victims."

Would WDM activists be willing to go to jail, then, for peaceful direct action? "It's too early to say," he replies, guardedly. "But the tactics of the environmentalists have worked: there are now votes to be won or lost on the environment whereas on development, there aren't. Time is running out and we need to change that." Curtis has one more secret up his sleeve: he is a respected author. His book Web of Deceit, published last year, examined the secret history of British foreign policy since the second world war through documents released under the 30-year rule. And he has a new book out in the autumn. Unpeople: Britain's Secret History of Human Rights Abuse will, he says, blow the lid off Britain's involvement in Vietnam, Chile, Iraq (in 1963, that is) and Uganda, with special revelations about the role of Denis Healey, defence secretary under Harold Wilson.

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