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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood