David Cameron must weave a better story than his fairytale ‘golden thread’

This article was originally published on The Guardian website. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.


The UN high-level panel’s report on the new development agenda after 2015 is a work of some profundity. Sceptics have been taken aback at the radical nature of the suggested transformation. But they may be right that it will all be downhill from here, as the inevitable UN wrangling begins and the report’s bold vision is watered down.

Interestingly, the report implies that it is not only in decisions of war and peace that David Cameron is leading a country of reduced influence. Despite the prime minister’s position as co-chair, the report notably lacks the kind of insights one might expect from a British Conservative politician, despite what his advisers claim.

Rather than making Cameron’s presence felt on the international stage, the report demonstrates the limited impact of traditional conservative thinking on development. It is almost as if there is one Cameron on domestic policy, piloting austerity measures, and another signing off on a document calling for inclusive growth, an end to unsustainable consumption and production patterns and the kind of structural transformation usually identified with left-of-centre academics. This is UN-style language bringing a Tory politician on board, not the other way round.

Even the dominant paradigm of sustainable development that frames the report is outside the prime minister’s comfort zone. It is true that a younger Cameron once posed with huskies to demonstrate his concern for the planet. But he has made little mention of sustainable development since, so it is unlikely he was urging its merits too much at the conference table.

Unfortunately, Cameron’s enduring contribution may have been weak language on inequality, although I doubt he was entirely to blame for this. Few world leaders feel comfortable with the language of equality.

I do not question the sincerity of Cameron’s desire to contribute to the eradication of extreme poverty; It’s that just his approach does not stack up. Perhaps it is good news, then, that there is scant evidence in the panel’s report of his infamous “golden thread”, a nebulous idea which seeks to imply that western styles of democratic government and openness are a foundation of growth and poverty reduction.

That does not mean that elements of his golden thread are not mentioned. Commitments on civil rights and reducing conflict accompany generalities about economic openness and opportunities and other parts of the golden thread wishlist, such as accountable institutions and transparency.

But all that would have been in there anyway. Despite Cameron’s annoying attempts to present his focus on institutions and governance as new and radical, it is about as near to conventional wisdom as you can get.

The failure of the golden thread is its confusion of values with a policy roadmap. If he had stuck with a golden vision, I could happily sign up to most of what he had in mind – it is fairly standard liberal fare. Instead, he has sought to cajole history into a series of orderly steps and claim things for which there is no convincing evidence. The golden thread’s most serious deficiencies are its lack of a power analysis, the absence of any acknowledgement of the need for confrontation and revolt, and a failure to discuss the trade-offs sometimes necessary between economic and civil rights.

If you want to see a golden thread, you have to make quite a fastidious effort to ignore those countries where civil participation and democracy have not led to economic and social gains (South Africa springs to mind, as does Egypt’s current crisis), and where suppression of dissent has been accompanied by policies that have led to immense progress, be that the social progress of Cuba, or the economic miracles of east Asia (including, of course, China).

We should believe in freedom because it is right, without trying to construct a false instrumentalist theory around it.

As the representative of the rich countries on the panel (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono represented the middle-income countries and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the poorest countries), Cameron’s attention should have been entirely focused on issues he might well claim to know a good deal about. These issues would have included how to tackle social problems and inequality in industrialised societies, and how to reduce the negative impact of dirty development on the planet. The report is weak on these areas, however.

Instead, he continues to sermonise on the problems of poor countries – and even has the gall to come with his own pet theory. And to give it a name. The golden thread. Like a fairytale. Unsurprisingly, it suits a view of the world that places the blame for poverty squarely on the southern countries, rather than looking at how the rich world entrenches injustice.

It is a sign of the times that the power of internationalist evidence and debate appears to have drowned out the instincts of a British prime minister, and that an impressive secretariat has swept him along with the dominant tide in which there is little room for traditional conservative thinking on development.


Jonathan Glennie is a research associate at the Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure at the Overseas Development Institute

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