Can Cameron practice what he preaches on international development?

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal David Cameron set out his views on the role that Britain can play in tackling the root causes of poverty.  It was a clear and compelling piece and, in my opinion, there is much to celebrate.

He is right that 0.7% aid commitment is vital for both saving lives in emergencies and for investing in the future through better schools, hospitals, roads and the like.  But he is also right that aid on its own will never be enough – and should not be portrayed as such. He argues that the UK, from a position of leadership provided by having met our 0.7% target (presuming that we do actually meet it when next year’s Budget is announced), should help the world to move beyond aid and to tackle some of the root causes of poverty – and I couldn’t agree more.  But what does that actually mean?

Cameron is fond of talking about the “golden thread” of conditions that are important for people to thrive. In this article he lists these as the rule of law, the absence of conflict and corruption, and the presence of property rights and strong institutions. While details are scare there have been some interesting critiques of this approach, including by Owen Barder and Chris Blattman.

While there is clearly a lot of sense in focusing attention on these things, Barder rightly points out that civil society themselves have a huge role to play in bringing these about within a country and need to be pro-actively supported to do so. Aid can play a very helpful role in supporting education and community mobilisation, and in providing technical support to help communities track government money and hold their leaders to account.

Barder also points out the global system itself needs sorting out – weak governance and corruption aren’t just developing country problems.  To his credit, Cameron did point out that,

“In the developed world must also put our own house in order, including by tracking down and returning plundered assets, refusing visas to corrupt foreign officials and stopping bribery involving our companies.”

However I would argue that the UK has further to go to be in a leadership position on this agenda than it has on aid. Our recent Bribery Act – making it illegal for UK companies to bribe foreign officials – was a good start, but the government needs a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy, must join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and must do much more to tackle systematic tax evasion if Cameron really does want the UK to play a leadership role.

David Cameron mentioned the crucial legislation currently being finalised by the EU which will force EU companies to publish what they pay to developing countries which, as Bishop Stephen Munga from Tanzania recently set out,  would really help communities to ensure that the money was invested in ways which help communities to get out of poverty.  It was great to see public support for this in the Wall Street Journal and we hope that the UK really are leading within the EU Council to make the legislation as strong as possible and will certainly support them through our Unearth the Truth campaign as they seek to do so.

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David Cameron and his co-Chairs of the UN High Level Panel in London yesterday (from DFID website)

Because, although we know that the UK isn’t perhaps the global power that it once was, UK leadership does matter at the moment and 2013 is going to be a very important year. David Cameron is currently co-chair of the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 agenda, meeting in London this week, and has an important role to play in setting out a vision for a more fairer and sustainable world, as well as the best targets to set to make sure that vision is realised.

The UK is also chairing both the G8 and the Open Government Partnership next year, both of which provide significant opportunities for initiatives to tackle corruption and promote greater transparency in the use of financial resources .

It was encouraging that Cameron pledged to hold a hunger summit in 2013 to make sure the world doesn’t lose focus in tackling the root causes of hunger – remembering that one in eight people still go to bed hungry every night. But there will be a huge amount of energy and diplomacy required to get all of these processes to deliver more than just warm words.

The vision that Cameron has set out is a compelling one. But it is now vital that he delivers – both by making sure that the UK gets its own house in order, and by ensuring that the rest of the world get on board with this vision too.

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  1. […] talks in Doha.  But we did get a Number 10 High Level Meeting on Hunger and a new focus from David Cameron on the “golden thread” of development – whatever that actually means. We’ve been talking about the scourge of […]

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