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?

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.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt