David Cameron in Liberia: All that glitters is not gold

The Prime Minister will advocate his "golden thread" approach to aid this week - but does he know what he is talking about?

New Statesman

Following his visit to Algeria this week, David Cameron will travel to another African country for a lower profile, but crucially important meeting. The Prime Minister will chair a gathering of the world’s great and good, debating the details of an ambitious, inspirational plan to end extreme poverty within a generation. But is he the right person for the job?

The UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda meets in Monrovia, Liberia, this week. They plan to define a successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals. Developing and developed countries will be represented by civil society, government, business, and academia. Cameron, along with the presidents of Liberia and Indonesia, will co-chair.

The defining concept of Cameron's development strategy is the so-called ‘golden thread of development.’ The idea is that development needs to reach beyond aid levels, to focus on other features, such as transparency and better governance. It is hardly revolutionary to suggest development policy needs to go beyond aid – and at the World Development Movement we couldn’t agree more. But Cameron’s emphasis on ‘beyond aid’ is somewhat ironic. His government, to its credit, has stuck to its 30 year promise to reach 0.7 per cent of UK national income in aid. Its record in beyond-aid areas is much less positive.

Development beyond aid is first and foremost about tackling inequality. This is because the extreme inequality we see in many countries today, not to mention at the global level, slashes social cohesion and wrecks children’s life chances. The world has moved on from the days of proclaiming intense relaxation about people being filthy rich. Few now defend extreme inequality; even the denizens of Davos discussed it last week. But Cameron is the man who risked his own political popularity by cutting the top 50 per cent tax rate on the wealthiest in the UK, at the same time as increasing the burden on the less well off. Will he really deal with global inequality? He hasn’t made a good start.

The post-2015 panel has to bring climate change into its deliberations, and it is doing so. This is the must-have component of any sensible blueprint for development. Climate change is already hitting the poorest people in the poorest countries. Worse, if not dealt with, it could completely derail any plan to end poverty. But David Cameron? He is determined to build as many as thirty new carbon-belching gas fired power stations in the UK, a move that will undermine investment in renewable energy for decades. This hardly helps his chances of progressing climate discussions on the global stage.

After the 2008 financial crash proved our financial system is as solid as a house of cards, a beyond-aid development agenda must plan to tame the dangerous power of the financial sector. Amongst a multitude of benefits, doing this would help stabilise and lower the price of food, which can consume as much as three quarters of poor people’s incomes. But Cameron has refused to take serious, common sense action to prevent another banking collapse. For example, he could have separated the high street banks from their gambling investment arms, but instead he has allowed them to remain too big to fail.

Overshadowing all this, is the big economic picture. Cameron is the man who continues to dole out austerity, against the advice of just about everyone – including Nobel prize-winning economists, the International Monetary Fund, and Goldman Sachs. This is similar thinking to the 1980s and 1990s structural adjustment programmes, which were disastrous for developing countries. Even the IMF, which spread these programmes around the world, now acknowledges they failed.

So while Cameron’s support for British aid is laudable, his wider record in government begs questions about his suitability to map out the vital post-2015 plan to end global poverty. Will he tackle inequality? Will he take climate change seriously? Will he tame the financial sector? His recent commitment to deal with corporate tax avoidance is a welcome stride in the right direction (as long as words are followed by action). We can only hope other brave and effective commitments – and reversals of policy to date – will follow.