NEWSMAKER: The globalisation perspective - Barry Coates, director, World Development Movement

Gideon Burrows

Barry Coates does not have the background you might expect for the director of a grassroots-led development campaign such as the World Development Movement.

Far from honing his skills painting banners or organising protests, Coates emerged with a degree in commerce from Auckland University in his native New Zealand to work for some of the very institutions he now spends most of his time campaigning against.

"To get some commercial experience, I did work for Shell for three years," says Coates, "but decided it wasn't what I wanted to do as a career."

That's something of an understatement. After a stint with an oil company behemoth, and five years as a consultant for a US think-tank working for multinationals and governments, Coates moved into the NGO sector 13 years ago. He shows every sign of staying. In a few months, he is due to leave the World Development Movement after seven years to become executive director of Oxfam in New Zealand.

Coates has seen a lot of change in development campaigning over the years.

He was head of policy development at WWF in the early 1990s, just as public concern was growing about the exact role of two shadowy organisations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"When I did the WWF work at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it was an interesting time because it seemed possible something might actually happen," he says.

"But I ended up feeling deflated, because governments didn't grab the chance to make substantial change. Then, 10 years later at the Johannesburg summit, governments just were not interested. They were mouthing the words, but were not seriously committed to tackling the problems of development and the environment."

Government support for a progressive development agenda may have waned over the past 13 years, but public concern for developing countries and the policies of rich nations and their corporations has increased. It's a trend Coates has used to the movement's benefit, doubling its income to more than £1 million since he joined as director in May 1996, and increasing its staff and supporter base.

But the emergence of development as a major issue of public concern has been both a blessing and a threat. In the early 1990s, few development or aid organisations were campaigning about the trade policies of rich nations and international institutions - today almost every aid agency has a trade campaign.

"The World Development Movement was set up by charities to do the campaigning they couldn't do because of their status," he says. "But now, the aid agencies have realised the problems of poverty are not going to be addressed by dollops of aid, so they've worked on their own policies. While that's a recognition of our achievements, we've had to look at our contribution within that advocacy context to carve out a role and a niche for ourselves."

Coates firmly believes that niche to be the movement's independence - it receives no institutional or government funding - and is more outspoken and pioneering in its campaigning than other organisations. "We've tried to push the boundaries," he says.

One example Coates points to is on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a trade treaty which campaigners managed to get dropped from the World Trade Organisation agenda over fears it would lead to developing nations selling off their natural assets to the highest bidder, even against their will.

"We didn't just call for changes, we wanted to put a stop to it," he says.

Coates does step back from attacking other NGOs directly, though in the past World Development Movement has been a vocal critic. On the accusation aid agencies are delivering a government agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan, he states "that kind of allegation is just plain wrong".

"There is a dangerous trend that conditions are put on aid funding ... but I think most British agencies that receive money from government are aware of that situation and resist it strongly," he states.

While closeness to government is one criticism levelled at NGOs, there are other threats.

"One of the challenges facing the sector is that as NGOs have got their campaign messages into the heartlands, the fightback has been triggered with attacks on NGOs and their legitimacy."

Coates is referring to emerging organisations, such as NGO Watch, set up by right wing US think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which attacks the legitimacy of NGOs, especially those critical of US and UK policy in Iraq.

"In response, NGOs ought to stand up on the strength of their research and evidence, their right to be heard and for their right to play a role in these international negotiations."

When pressed, Coates admits to real concerns on the issue. He says NGOs need to "strengthen the communication of their legitimacy, and in many cases strengthen their legitimacy".

"I just hope trustees don't lose their nerve," he adds. "The ideal scenario is that they stand firm and do not allow NGOs to be relegated to solely delivering services - that would damage the process of developing a dynamic democracy internationally."

Away from the frontline, Coates has wanted to go back to New Zealand for a long time, and frequently visits to sail. He claims what he will miss when he goes is the way UK NGOs work together.

"I see a movement with fantastic public support for international development, on a scale beyond most other countries. The tremendous public belief in British NGOs makes it a very stimulating environment to work in," he concludes.

"I'm very proud of the way I've been able to make some contribution to the way NGOs have cooperated. That's fundamental to achieving their aims."

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