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

G8 Summit: Gordon Brown worked harder than David Cameron – and at the G8, it shows

In today’s Telegraph, Kirsty McNeill, LCID Advisory Board Co-Chair, contrasts the Cameron’s weak efforts at this year’s G8 with the achievements of Blair and Brown at previous summits:

Since the UK last hosted the G8 in 2005, the keys to Downing Street have changed hands twice – once to an occupant who was in his element hammering out technically complex global deals; and once to a man who seems to find the whole summit circuit a bit of a yawn.
Cameron has not been able to drive forward a global deal on tax because he left putting his own house in order until Saturday – far too late to get other countries to fall in line.
Read the full article here

To combat tax avoidance, tough talk is not enough

To combat tax avoidance, tough talk is not enough

The prime minister has given us plenty of tough talk about cracking down on tax avoidance. Whether he can deliver a concrete agreement will be a crucial test of his leadership. In 2005, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown emerged from the Gleneagles summit with a concrete agreement to write off the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries. If he matches their success, it will be a substantial achievement. If he fails on the world stage, he must commit, as Ed Miliband has done, to taking tough action at home to ensure a fair and just tax system for all.

Margaret Hodge writing in The Guardian on how the G8 must prioritise a crack down on tax avoidance. Ms Hodge suggests a number of ways this could be achieved and offers advice to David Cameron on how to negotiate with the crown dependencies involved.

Questions grow over DfID’s ‘ring-fenced’ budget

Rumours over the security of DfID’s budget have been mounting over the last few weeks. Today in the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting raises questions over the pressure coming from the Right for Cameron’s government to change their approach to the international development budget.

The Coalition Government came to power promising to ring-fence international development spending, yet doubts have already begun to emerge over the ways in which money will be spent and, now, whether the pressure to cut will overwhelm Cameron and his team.

Such a move would not only run counter to 13 years of progressive aid policy, but jeopardise the UK’s reputation as a leader in international development.

Interestingly, Bunting notes that:

“The best defence of DfID he can’t – won’t – use. It’s a department which went from strength to strength under a succession of passionately committed ministers under Labour and, now not only has a much bigger budget than the Foreign Office but has assumed much of the prestige and status, both at home and abroad, of its former parent department. Last week the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gave a stunning end-of-term report, praising DfID for its “capable, mission-driven and decentralised development ministry … [it] makes continuous efforts to improve its efficiency and effectiveness”, and has achieved “national and international recognition for its professionalism and ability to deliver its aid programme”.”

Voices from the Right might, therefore, win over. But this will be nothing short of a betrayal of the world’s poor. The truth of the matter is:

“DfID can point to a string of achievements. British aid pays for 5 million children in primary school, a comparable figure to the number of British primary school children for a fraction of the cost, just 2.5%. Or take the much smaller but fascinating example of M-Pesa, the mobile phone money-transfer scheme launched by a £1m DfID matching grant with Vodaphone. In its first three years in Kenya it expanded to 8 million users; now it is being adopted in countries all over the world, including Afghanistan, to transfer small amounts of money for those who don’t have sufficient resources to be served by the formal banking system. DfID has dozens such stories of how aid has to be part of any sensible strategy for Britain’s role in the world, trying to help countries break out of a poverty trap to achieve prosperity and stability. The sums involved are tiny: DfID’s total budget is £7bn, only 2% of total government spending; it’ a fraction of what the country spends on gambling, alcohol or defence.”

Calls to scrap DfID’s budget, or the Department itself, have come from some notable Tory grandees, but they are, quite simply wrong. Andrew Mitchell would do well to ignore them. 

You can read the article in full on The Guardian website.

UPDATE: There is a second article in The Guardian today calling on the Government to protect aid. According to Larry Elliott, Labour’s legacy is strong: “It was not just that Labour worked hard at home and abroad to push for debt relief and a doubling of G8 aid, it was also that Brown and Tony Blair changed the political weather when it came to development.”

Aid is a marathon not a sprint

Douglas Alexander writes in The Guardian today that ‘the coalition has failed to commit fully to international aid, yet it is a policy that remains morally right and in our common interest.’

“Instead of creating straw men to burn ceremoniously in an ill-conceived strategy to placate sceptics on the right of his party, Andrew Mitchell would do better to highlight and build upon what was working well and set out a positive, forward agenda – starting with the upcoming New York summit.

The best way to build common ground is to build on higher ground. That is the lesson of the real progress we have made over these last five years since Gleneagles.”