05 November 2012

The Goldilocks Debate (or Much Ado About a Golden Thread)

David Cameron's Wall Street Journal OpEd caused a bit of a stir in the aid blogosphere. The UK prime minister described his 'golden thread' theory of economic development  The thread is formed by focusing on the strands of rule of law, corruption, conflict, property rights and institutions. "A genuine golden thread would tie together economic, social and political progress in countries the world over. And we need to make a new priority of strengthening the vital institutions that enable and defend that progress," wrote Cameron.

Pulling together the individual strands into a single thread will create "conditions that enable open economies and open societies to thrive" argues Cameron. It is an idea that Cameron has advocated for in the past, but it is more important in light of the UN high level meeting on the Post-2015 agenda that he co-chaired last week.

Gold threads with a twist

His theory regarding development matters because it will influence the set of goals or agenda that follows the end of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Owen Barder said in August that the theory falls short in three ways: 1) It is too narrow in talking about growth, neglecting issues line inequality and civil society; 2) There is no mention of change in developed countries; 3) A lack of humility in terms of affecting social change in countries.

The three concerns raised by Barder are somewhat addressed  in the WSJ OpEd. The inclusion of accountability gets a bit at the issue of social change, but there is no information about implementation which was one of the main sticking points for Barder. The second point regarding developed nations is included when Cameron writes, "[W]e 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. The U.S. has introduced legally binding measures to require oil, gas and mining companies to publish key financial information for each country and project they work on. And I want Europe to do the same."

Chris Blattman took a more critical view of the Cameron's theory disagreeing with the focus on corruption. "Anti-corruption is a 20th century Anglo-American fetish, important, but nowhere near as important as political stability or basic property rights," says Blattman. In a follow up post today, Blattman expanded on the point of corruption arguing that the available evidence regarding corruption shows that it is not very important.

Institutions themselves sit a the forefront of Blattman's mind. He points to the US and Britian as examples of the development of institutions. "What did the US and Britain do? They gradually strengthened the capacity of their central governments while slowly diffusing power to a wider and wider group of people. They designed or evolved checks and balances that kept one cabal from taking over the state. A free press was one, but so were strong parties, professional militaries, judges, professional associations, unions, and civil societies," he writes.

For Errol Yayboke, the question that arises from the discussion is the issue of aid dependence. Questions must be raised in regards to the effects that aid has on countries and if it is capable of moving the development of a country forward. He says that we are handicapped by sexier and more pressing issues like starvation. That in turn makes it much harder to build support for growing the private sector and improving governments.

He argues that leaders like Cameron are in a position to change the way that people talk about and implement development and aid. "[T]his must start with a gradual shift in mentality. One that must start from David Cameron and his peers at the highest levels of government in the 'developed' and 'developing' world. One that involves a tough transition from reactive humanitarian aid to economic growth and stability-encouraging initiatives. One that may take a generation (or more) to fully realize. One that will be unpopular with inherently protectionist constituents justifiably worried about their own domestic economies and jobs. One that nonetheless just might allow us to eventually shift from ‘helping developing countries’ to ‘dealing with trading partners’," he writes.

Todd Moss and Justin Sandefur both took a more optimistic view in regards to the OpEd. Sandefur explains that Cameron strikes a good balance between the aid policies espoused by Gov Romney and President Bush. He says that conservatives agree largely on the golden thread idea, but the how question is where the paths diverge.

Moss also writes in the context of US development policy pointing out his three takeaways and concluding that he hopes that the principles he picked out are adopted by whomever will enter/remain in the White House following Tuesday's elections.

As the discussions continue in the echo chamber that is aid blogging, the question is if these discussions will actually influence Cameron. It is hard to make the exact causal link, but it is promising to see that some of the concerns raised by Barder a few months ago are now making it into the remarks by Cameron.

Various interests will attempt to be heard during the process of determining the frame work for the post-2015 agenda. Hopefully that robust discussions, as witnessed in the wake of Cameron's OpEd, will find their way to a larger audience.