Newsmaker: Agent provocateur - Mark Curtis, Director, World Development Movement

Mathew Little

It is 2005 and World Development Movement director Mark Curtis is snapped joking with Prime Minister Gordon Brown over a glass of champagne at a Number 10 Downing Street reception, to mark new government targets to reduce world poverty. What's wrong with this picture?

It's not just Premier Brown - Curtis, an unforgiving critic of British foreign policy, is one NGO director who eschews the cocktail party route to influence. "Cocktail parties alone do not change ministers' minds," he says. "They know they are exploiting the poor. They don't need to be told that in another policy report. They should be told that there is a large number of people who are outraged about what is going on and will be demonstrating in the streets to make them look stupid."

Taking over the reigns at the WDM - a pressure group for the rights of developing countries that has frequently provoked the ire of government and big business - Curtis seems intent on upping the ante even further.

"If anything, I see the WDM's role as becoming more radical and more challenging. We should be taking more direct action, and raising the costs."

The organisation's trustees must have known they would be getting 'development with attitude' when they appointed Curtis. Besides a career in the NGO sector, which has included stints at Action Aid and Christian Aid, Curtis is also a part-time historian whose books are uncompromising assaults on the ethical foundations of British foreign policy. Curtis claims that beneath a facade of benevolence, successive British governments have abused human rights, violated international law, and backed some of the world's most repressive regimes. And he has spent months in the Public Records Office in Kew, unearthing declassified government documents to prove it.

He raises the example of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. "Britain was complicit in the genocide," he says. "British diplomats went out of their way to ensure there was no UN intervention to prevent the genocide and ensure nothing was done. And it wasn't just turning a blind eye. But there was no mention of this in any of the hundreds of articles written around the anniversary of Rwanda that Britain had any responsibility for what happened. Even big events like that just get buried."

Such counter-intuitive iconoclasm has earned Curtis explicit comparisons with the American social critic Noam Chomsky. "I'm flattered by anyone who thinks I could be compared to Chomsky, because I think he has transformed our understanding of US foreign policy," Curtis says. "And if I've encouraged people to change their minds over this country's role in the world, then I'll have achieved all I'm trying to achieve."

But Curtis doesn't seem like a firebrand radical. You could imagine him joining a rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at Twickenham, as much as imploring Tony Blair's indictment as a war criminal in Hyde Park. In fact, he began his career in the heart of the establishment. He spent five years as a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which Curtis describes as the "research arm of the foreign office - there are a lot of secret-service people there. I sat next to someone from MI6 for a year."

He became disillusioned with academia and defected to the NGO sector to work in policy and advocacy. "I thought I could do far more critical research within the NGO world where there was more of a desire to produce research for social change," he says.

But despite his work in this area, UK NGOs fall within the Curtis firing range too. The large aid agencies, he says, have been seduced by New Labour rhetoric. They have been taken in by the Government's claims to be a friend of the world's poor, despite its unerring commitment to "bust open their economies for the benefit of big business".

Interestingly, he attributes this co-option not to any financial relationship but to an intellectual and personal seduction. "It's not primarily funding," he says. "The temptation is to believe that because they get a lot of money from the Government, they can't criticise them. Actually a lot of agencies don't get that much of their money from the Government. But I think there is what you might call a liberal consensus within the development community. Only reform is possible or required. And because supporters are relatively middle of the road, what's the use of calling for more radical change?"

He also slates NGO directors for "hobnobbing with the powerful ... because there are often personal relationships between senior figures in the agencies and government people, I do think there is an easy co-option," he says.

But what of the WDM under Curtis? Clearly on the radical wing of the NGO world, he says he wants the organisation to "bite off something very big" such as a campaign against the whole neoliberal agenda being foisted on developing countries. The movement could also oppose government and business in physical as well as intellectual ways.

"I would like to mobilise people to more direct forms of campaigning, more direct action. No other agency does that," he says.

The WDM seems intent on provoking a reaction from powerful interests, which is something Curtis, the iconoclastic author, has curiously failed to do. "I've never had any feedback from anyone in government about my books," he confesses. "They don't mention it. The English are very good at burying controversial issues. We don't like arguments." But he is still determined to start some.


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