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Deborah Doane: a Conservative government could inspire activism

Tom Levitt

20th April, 2010

The pioneering World Development Movement (WDM), celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Its director Deborah Doane, says it now is considering more direct forms of protest

Tom Levitt: Is climate change the main focus of WDM campaigning now?
 
Deborah Doane: Climate change is such an all-encompassing issue that NGOs have said we have to find a way to engage in the climate change debate because the knock-on affects are absolutely everywhere. I think in doing we may have lost the economic angle and the poverty.

In fighting climate there’s a potential that you can be very narrow minded and go for solving this one problem and before you know it you have monocultures, you don’t have people with local livelihoods, you exclude the poorest from resources.

You have to be mindful of poverty and economic justice and I think for WDM, it is important in our 40th anniversary year to remind ourselves of our original goals when we are looking at the climate issue.

It’s not about ignoring the climate issue it is about saying - how do these issues interact and how do we talk about climate, because it is probably the most important issue of our time, at the same time as dealing with poverty, justice and massive global inequalities? Climate change affects both our ecology and our humanity.

TL: You've brought a number of legal challenges over the past year, including challenging banks over their investments in controversial projects like tar sands. Is that now your favoured tactic?

 
DD:
We have a history of successful legal actions at WDM, including the Pergau Dam case in late 1980s, which successfully challenged British aid policy at the time.

But we also match that with local, grassroots and online activism and also clever stunts which can get media attention. I don’t think an online petition or legal case on its own will change the world and neither will a protest march - it is about marrying up those tactics.
 
TL: Do you support direct action?
 
DD:
We are currently going through a consultation with our members about using non-violent direct action and whether or not it should be in our kit.

We are different from Greenpeace which is more command and control whereas our local groups have a fair amount of autonomy in what they can do. There are legal implications for us if we go down the direct action route but whatever we decide it will be done democratically through a vote.
 
TL: Is it something that you personally want to get WDM involved in?
 
DD: I think many of us in WDM would recognise that its an important element of social movements. Whether or not it is right for WDM, the jury is still out. But if you look at the history of social movements, the big changes from the civil rights movement right back to the suffragettes, direct action was absolutely a part of those big changes so I think it is something we cannot ignore.
 
TL: How do you get involved in direct action without marginalising those who do not feel comfortable with it?
 
DD: We have others who say they would really like to join WDM if they were involved in direct action. I think it is about making the decision on what is right for achieving change. If we think that using that tactic will bring change while avoiding some of those legal problems then it is probably something that is worthwhile going forward with.

The flipside to that is that WDM and other groups have to decide ok this is our role in the movement and allow other groups to stay on the middle-ground while WDM become more radical or we have to adapt our message to different audiences at different times. How do we make activism more comfortable for more people rather than seeing it as something that will marginalise or make people not want to join us. How do you actually say it is so important to be activists in the 21st century?

No matter what we decide to do we have to respect that there is a role for direct action within the wider movement.
 
TL: Has WDM been involved in direct action before?
 
DD: Not officially but some of our local groups will happily do a stunt outside a bank or E.ON and some would put that in a category of direct action. Technically anything you do without police authority could be classified as direct action.
 
TL: What are WDM’s priorities for the year ahead?
 
DD: RBS, cleaning up the banks campaign will continue. We want to make it a much more political issue. We’re still exploring the legal action but want to make more noise in parliament and raise it during the election.

We still own 84 per cent of RBS this is our money. We can find ways of having a say over how that is used.

The mainstream view is still let the market sort it out, a judge in one of our recent cases said, ‘I can understand what the climate change impacts of building a road might be but a bank?’. So we still have some way to go to educating politicians and the public about the role of financial institutions in helping to tackle climate change.

The public was outraged about executive pay, quite rightly so and I think we need to do the same on climate change investments.
 
We’re also developing a campaign on commodity speculation, primarily food speculation. We’re looking at the impact of this on people’s day-to-day ability to feed themselves. The role of the financial sector is not morally neutral - they think they are but they are not. After the sub-prime mortgage collapse we saw a lot of speculation going into food commodities and it had a massive impact in a very short amount of time all around the world.

We know the UK is undermining efforts to regulate this sector at a European level. There is also an environmental impact too as when the price goes up people plough down the forests in their local area and plant whatever crop has got a high price.

TL: What are your views about a change in government in the upcoming UK election?
 
DD: I think we’ve had Labour in power for a long time and I think the NGO community and the trade union movement, certainly in the early days and still to an extent now, assumed that we had our friends on the inside and didn’t make as much noise as we could have done.

What I am optimistic about if there is a Conservative government is that I hope it will inspire activism. I’m not advocating the poll tax riots but I am hoping it will make people more conscious of building a stronger and cohesive activist movement.

You need people on the outside, you can’t always be working on the inside. I think in 13 years of Labour we’ve been a bit lax as activists because quite frankly we didn’t always have our friends on the inside. I am feeling positive about a Tory government, especially if it is only one term, if we can generate some good, heated debate.
 
Useful links

http://www.wdm.org.uk/general-election  - where you can find out WDM’s take on the political parties position
http://www.wdm.org.uk/global-financial-crisis
- with RBS AGM round the corner, it’s time to put the heat on to clean up the bailed out banks.
http://www.wdm.org.uk/climate - the climate crisis has been caused by the rich, but the poorest people are paying the heaviest price.

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