The Golden Thread Development Narrative: What’s hot, what’s not and how it can be improved

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The coming year is going to a big one in the UK for global development, with the UK Government able not only to consolidate its impressive record on aid, but also to move the agenda decisively beyond aid. On aid, the UK will meet its commitment to invest 0.7% of GNI in the fight against global poverty (the equivalent of just 1.6p in every pound of government spending). Beyond aid, the UK will hold the Presidency of the G8 and will be senior co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, with Prime Minister David Cameron also playing a key role on the UN High Level Panel to design the framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

In the run-up to 2013, picking up a theme he first used several years ago, David Cameron has talked a lot about what he refers to as the “Golden Thread” of development – see this excellent piece by the Center for Global Development’s Owen Barder. In this post, we provide a guide to the “Golden thread” narrative: what does it say; what’s good about it; what’s not so good about; and, how it can be improved.

What is the “Golden Thread”?

The key message of the Golden Thread is simple: if societies are to move from poverty to prosperity, they need to have the right institutions and governance arrangements in place. For David Cameron, these include property rights, human rights, the rule of law, transparency, accountability, free markets, a vibrant private sector, stable government, free media, fair elections and an effective civil society. Quite a collection of things that most people in Europe and North America might take for granted, but which fewer people in Africa enjoy.

What’s good about the Golden Thread?

The best thing about the Golden Thread narrative is that, while recognising the important role that aid can play, there is an explicit acknowledgement that long-term development will not be achieved simply by spending more money. This seems obvious, but it’s a point that bears repeating. With domestic resources ten times the volume of aid across Africa as a whole, what matters most are institutions, governance arrangements and the ability of African citizens to hold their governments to account for the effective use of resources, including but going far beyond aid. The Golden Thread narrative has the potential to put these issues firmly at the centre of policy and practice on global development.

What’s not so good about the Golden Thread narrative?

As others have pointed out, the Golden Thread narrative is not without its problems. It says too little about inequality and inclusive growth and it risks being seen as overly individualistic. Most problematically in my view, it risks being seen as just another one-size fits-all, west-knows-best, story about the wonders of “Good Governance”. This is not to say that effective governance arrangements are unimportant, but it is to emphasise three points. First, governance arrangements that work in one place may not work in another. Second, to be effective, governance arrangements need to be ones that local people embrace. And third, lecturing countries about how they should be governed is not a good idea. In short, a preachy “Good Governance” agenda is outdated, inappropriate and ineffective. It would be a big mistake for David Cameron to give it a new lease of life.

How can the potential of the Golden Thread narrative be realised?

Despite its downsides, the narrative of the Golden Thread has considerable potential. To realise its potential, David Cameron and the UK government should do four key things. First, emphasise that the Golden Thread is about empowering people – including women and other marginalised groups – with the information and resources that they need to exercise their rights and to take greater control of their own destinies, individually and collectively, in ways that are appropriate to their contexts. Second, acknowledge that while the Golden Thread can help to lift people out of poverty, the most marginalised will continue to need safety nets and social protection. Third, weave the Golden Thread through the G8, the Open Government Partnership and the High Level Panel, focusing in these fora on coming up with solutions, together, rather than telling others what to do.  Finally, pass all ideas about what the G8 should do through a filter that asks: “will implementing this idea put the G8’s own house in order in ways that enable people in developing countries to take charge of their own development and hold their governments to account?”

Making 2013 a Golden Moment for Global Development

There is some scepticism within the development community about “the Golden Thread” and about the Prime Minister’s commitment to a development agenda which is about giving people in developing countries greater control of the agenda. This is partly because the policy changes are still to come, so there remain more questions than answers about what this agenda will mean in practice. But the opportunity to realise the potential of the Golden Thread and to ensure that the UK government delivers on the promise of 2013, makes engaging with the Government the right option. That is what ONE will be doing as the UK Government firms up its plans for weaving a Golden Thread of openness, transparency and accountability through the global development agenda and as we firm up our plans for campaigning to enable African citizens to follow the money and hold their governments to account. Watch this space and get involved.

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