Interview: John Hilary, Executive director, War on Want

The new incumbent will not change charity's forthright approach

John Hilary
John Hilary

War on Want's new director, John Hilary, is proud of his sturdy ringbinder of press cuttings. The charity has only 23 staff and an income of less than £2m, but it commands considerable media attention - journalists regularly phone in search of stories.

The charity's most recent stint in the spotlight was in Panorama's film about the much-criticised clothing giant Primark, which was largely based on its research.

Asda, Coca-Cola, Anglo American and Caterpillar have all been on the receiving end of War on Want's scrutiny in recent years. Asked to describe the charity's relations with the corporations it researches, Hilary opts, politely, for: "A bit spiky."

He adds: "We don't spend too much time engaging with the companies. There are other charities that do that - try to cajole them into being more responsible. Our role is to complement that policy of engagement with more hard-hitting reports that hold them to account. For us, independence from companies and governments is a guarantee of our integrity."

The question of independence for poverty groups was brought into focus this year when several of them refused the Department for International Development's request that they support its approach of working closely with companies and align their campaigns with government messages (14 May, page 1).

War on Want hasn't been the target of DfID overtures, but other groups have adopted a more company-friendly approach. Hilary insists, however, that this has not created problems in the campaigning coalitions of which War on Want is a part. "We recognise that we all have different approaches," he says.

War on Want's forthright approach of confronting corporations and governments has made it a media favourite, but it has also attracted criticism.

War on Want staff say they have received abusive calls from Zionists. The charity has also been the subject of formal complaints, including two from Conservative MPs Theresa Villiers (23 April, page 3) and Lee Scott (Third Sector Online, 30 August 2007). Both complained to the Charity Commission that campaigns by the charity claiming the Israeli government's policies caused Palestinian poverty were too political.

The complaints were not upheld and the commission's CC9 campaigning guidelines, issued this year, say charities can campaign about government policy, provided it isn't their "sole or continuing activity".

This type of complaint, which Hilary says is part of an ongoing strategy by an organised pro-Israel lobby and the Jewish press, is of as much interest to the media as the charity's reports.

"People know they can complain about a charity and the commission is duty bound to investigate the complaint to see if it is valid," he says. "But ill-meaning journalists can then portray this as if the commission is investigating the charity itself."

War on Want recently got an apology from the commission for inadvertently implying that the charity had agreed to clear its future campaigns with the commission in advance. "It shows how hard it sometimes is to get the right information, and how hard it is for charities to be able to defend themselves when there is misinformation in the air," Hilary says.

But the organisation will continue with its frank approach. Hilary says War on Want's slogan, "Poverty is Political", will remain. "To speak with a political voice means you are actually working in three dimensions rather than just two," he says.

2008: Executive director, War on Want
2004: Campaigns and policy director, War on Want
2003: Trade policy adviser, ActionAid
2001: Trade policy adviser, Save the Children
1997: Freelance trade policy adviser
1994: Publications editor, VSO
1993: Analyst, BBC World Service
1989: Campaigns officer, Amnesty International
1987: English teacher, Beijing, China

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