John Hilary: UK charities have lost their radical soul

Hilary with bookJohn Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want and author of The Poverty of Capitalism (Pluto, 2013), has been interviewed by Claire Provost in the Guardian today. In the article he explains the sharp critique of NGOs he presents in his new book.

We’ve reproduced some of it below. You can read the whole thing on the Guardian website, here.

Claire Provost

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.

Read the rest of the article, here.

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