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Barry Coates – Pacific watchdog on the world

Barry Coates Photo: Oxfam

Oxfam's Barry Coates ... "activist viewpoint from an early age". Photo: Megan Anderson

Pacific.Scoop
Profile – By Megan Anderson

Climate change tides are swelling. World leaders gnash their teeth in indecision. Hungry mouths are still there. Barry Coates knows – he’s trying to deal with it all.

Oxfam’s executive director speaks on tough subjects, but in so calm and rational a manner you begin to feel – if you haven’t before – that maybe it is possible to carve some compassion into what can seem an often indifferent and chaotic world.

Coates’ eyes are serene, his ‘Make Poverty History’ t-shirt unruffled, and he sips his (fair-trade) tea quietly. Maybe it’s his careful study of Buddhism that instils such calm in his person.

Or perhaps it’s his nine-year-old “short but feisty” twin daughters who, he says, keep him sane. Both are already campaigners for Oxfam, and it seems this need to help out the world runs in the family – Coates’ wife is also deeply involved in developmental work.

But Coates describes himself as having had an “activist viewpoint” from an early age. A little hard to believe at first, but easily discernable from his steady eyes, the passion with which he discusses the issues many ignore, and the way he has raised the profile of Oxfam in New Zealand to generate both public and political awareness on such issues as fair trade and climate change.

“I’m not happy with sitting there being depressed,” he explains. “I’ve always been someone to get involved rather than sit around and complain.”

Since Coates began as executive director in October 2003, Oxfam has grown rapidly. Co-worker Jason Garman says when he began working for the non-government organisation (NGO) four years ago there were around a dozen staff members. Now, the numbers are up in the 40s.

“What stands out for me is Barry’s long lasting commitment to walking the talk,” says Garman. “He’s out at street protests holding the signs, chanting the songs. He’ll ride his bicycle to work.”

Barry Coates    Photo: NZAid

Barry Coates ... "huge amount of energy". Photo: NZAid

“Huge energy”
David Culverhouse, executive of the Council of International Development (CID) – where Coates also works as chairman – laughs about his “huge amount of energy”.

“He works long hours, but always seems available to be involved.”

Coates is already readying himself with nine others from Oxfam for the Auckland Marathon next month, and admits, smiling, his more-than-likely participation in the epic Oxfam Trailwalker next year, where teams cover 100km in 36 hours to raise money for Oxfam’s projects abroad.

Gifted in school with the nickname “Dial-a-demo” – playing on his tendencies to demonstrate on such issues as the 1981 Springbok tour – Coates anticipated his later field of work during a Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA) programme in Samoa after graduating with an economics degree at the University of Auckland.

“I was interested in economics but I hated the paradigm of economics,” he explains. “It’s a sort of worshipping of economic growth rather than the values behind what the economy can provide in terms of better standards of living and better qualities of life, and levels of equity and so on.

“The usual paradigm of economics I think completely ignores those aspects.”

Working in Samoa from 1978-80 in rural development and with small-scale businesses, Coates was able to see the effect of economics on those who weren’t blessed with its bounty.

Barry Coates on the campaigning trail. Photo: PMC

Barry Coates on the campaigning trail. Photo: PMC

After a bout of sailing in the Pacific, a brief stint at an oil and gas consortium in Taranaki and a Masters in Management Studies at Yale, Coates took on the role of head of development policy with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1991. To fill the job he moved to Britain and adopted the challenging task of turning the theory of sustainable development into something practical.

He also experienced first-hand the trials of the 1992 UN Earth Summit.

Leader excuses
As part of the British delegation, Coates saw the excuses and incapability of world leaders to accept responsibility for a torn world that, as yet, featured little in the face of their own self-interests. This affected Coates deeply.

“I remember being very depressed about the future as a result of the Earth Summit,” he says. “There was a potential deal on the table. Rich countries could have committed to look after their environment and tackle things like climate change at that stage. Unfortunately, that deal was on the table, and none of the leaders had the vision or the guts to pick it up.”

For Coates, the summit was essentially a missed opportunity.

“We’ve wasted 17 years when we knew exactly what had to be done,” he says. “We’d known for a long time before 1992, but that was the time at which we really could have started changing things.

“And so we’re actually hitting a time when there’s not one crisis going on, it’s a series of multiple crises.”
Hence Coates’ conviction of the need to act as ‘watchdog’ for the New Zealand government.

“If someone isn’t acting as a watchdog on the government and exposing what’s happening, then governments won’t feel the pressure in order to do the right thing,” he says firmly.

In Coates’ role at Oxfam as executive director – he began after working for the globalisation campaign group World Development Movement – he has focused on rousing the public to foster awareness and change.

“There’s a lot of people around the world who recognise that the rules are unfair to the poor and unfair to our planet,” he says. “We need to use the voice of the citizens to change the rules.”

Climate deal
Currently, he is involved in the massive project of orchestrating TckTckTck, a global campaign on climate change trying to ensure the UN Copenhagen climate change deal – to be settled by world leaders in December – will be a good one.

This massing of people around the world for a cause beyond their local spheres gives Coates a great cause for hope in the face of apathetic leaders.

Coates, who works closely with politicians to generate action surrounding such issues, says the setbacks can be “hugely, hugely frustrating”.

“There’s a huge amount we can still do, but just like in 1992 it takes a few world leaders with enough guts and vision to see what needs to be done and look beyond their own narrow set of self-interests.

“New Zealand’s ‘clean, green’ image is by no means guaranteed, particularly if New Zealand drags its feet on climate change negotiations.”

Spending 20 years out of the country, Coates says he returned to a nation that had left its aid generosity in the dust of the Norm Kirk era – becoming instead the sixth lowest aid contributor in the developed OECD (according to 2007 statistics). Coates says New Zealand adopted a poverty mentality and began to define itself by what it wasn’t: Australia.

“I think that’s a real shame,” he says. “There’s hundreds of millions of people in the world who live on a couple of New Zealand dollars a day – and so why aren’t we comparing ourselves to them? And why aren’t we saying that, actually, we can be a force for good in the world?”

But things are changing, and Coates can see it, his gaze clear. It’s the younger New Zealanders, he says, who are facing the challenges of their world and shifting the values that once defined us.

“I think that’s exciting, to see a whole kind of generational shift away from the ‘I am’ generation to the ‘I care generation’.”

Fair trade
For Coates, the driver behind change is not aid, but empowerment. Take the combined fair trade movement in New Zealand and Australia which, just last year, went up an astonishing 72 percent. While fair trade still makes up only one per cent of global trade, Coates sees it as a driver for awareness and, inevitably, change.

“And it’s not only people from the rich countries,” he adds. “The growth of campaigning around the world on these issues has increasingly involved people from the developing world.”

Attitudes are changing, says Coates, and the economic paradigm along with it.

“Part of it’s around saying that this whole wild world of economic growth at any cost is not necessarily a good world for us to be living in. I think people do know that and do care.

“And so I do see it somewhat being associated with the demise of the economic orthodoxy. So, long may it flourish, and long may people figure out that there are ways to be happy in this world that don’t require you to just buy into the money, money, money system.”

Megan Anderson is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism at AUT University.