Cutting aid to the world’s poorest: Is this what global Britain looks like?

Tomos Owen

Another week, another U-turn. For anyone that follows British politics this will not come at a surprise. If anything, the U-turn has become a trademark of the current UK government and a defining feature of their first year in power. These U-turns have for the most part been welcomed, generally reversing a course of action that was clearly misjudged and did not align with the will of the British people, but the latest is rather more callous. It was on 25 November 2020, exactly one month before Christmas, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the government aimed to reduce the foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). This equates to around a £4bn cut in aid to those most in need around the world at a time when the funding of aid agencies and charities has already been decimated. 

The allocation of 0.7% of GNI to the foreign aid budget reflects a target that has been set by the UN since 1970. The UK signed up to this in 1973 and in 2013 became the first G7 country to do so. The importance of achieving this target in the UK has become so important in recent years that it was enshrined in law in 2015 through the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act. This created a legal obligation on the government to achieve the contribution of 0.7% of GNI to foreign aid in 2015 and every year subsequently, with a statement being required to parliament if this was not achieved. Equally, the current government clearly believed this commitment important enough to be included in their own manifesto, so the latest announcement also has the consequence of breaking an election promise. Although, it is worth pointing out that the Conservative party are not alone in this respect and the issue is so important and bipartisan that it was included in the manifesto of every elected political party in the last election, bar the DUP. 

Given that meeting the annual contribution of 0.7% of GNI to foreign aid is a goal sought across the political spectrum, it is worth highlighting how this money is spent and where it actually goes. The money is spent in several ways, but foreign aid is always targeted at low and middle income countries across the globe. In general, 64% of the money is spent bilaterally, meaning directly to a country or region, and 36% is spent multilaterally through agencies such as the United Nations. According to government figures, 15% of their contribution is spent on humanitarian relief, 12% on healthcare and 11% on education, amongst various other sectors. These are all fundamental aspects of life which would suffer greatly if foreign aid was cut. This money is also spread across the nations most in need and in 2016 the top five countries where foreign aid was provided by the UK were Pakistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan. 

Whilst these figures from the government are all interesting, a solely empirical look at this issue fails to contextualise just how important the UK’s foreign aid has been. You don’t truly get this sense until you look at the reaction to the announced cuts from those on the front line of these issues. On the cuts, the executive director of Action Against Hunger, Jean-Michel Grand said, “we estimate these cuts could see as many as three million women and children lose access to often life-saving nutrition service. Clinics will close, nurses will lose their jobs, and children will lose their lives”. The chief executive of Oxfam, Danny Sriskandarajah, stated, “cutting the UK’s lifeline to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a global pandemic will lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths.” The chief executive of WaterAid, Tim Wainwright, added, “this U-turn sees the government not only turning its back on those least able to cope with the impact of Covid-19 and climate change, but also reducing our international standing just at the moment when we are redefining global Britain on the world stage.” Katherine Nightingale, head of advocacy for Care International, simply pointed out that these cuts pose the potential for loss of life. The reaction from the third sector as a whole has been one of condemnation. 

The common theme coming from voices in the sector is that these cuts will lead to preventable deaths and have a serious impact on the wellbeing of many others. This is really the crux of the issue. On the face of it, saving around £4bn at a time when the UK is heading for a double-dip recession seems positive, but saving this by cutting aid to the world’s poorest cannot be justified. The end in this case certainly doesn’t justify the means. It is also not just simply about saving lives and the continuation of foreign aid equally has a long-term goal. It is about seeing ourselves as global citizens that assist one another, rather than people that should solely be concerned with what is happening in the arbitrary boundaries that mark our individual nation. If we all work together globally, in the future we can achieve feats far greater than have been seen before, but this relies on ensuring that in the present we achieve the far simpler goals of eradicating poverty, ensuring every individual has access to an education and removing the threat of preventable diseases. This will spark development in low and middle income countries that will create a net benefit for all. The proposed cuts will only serve to stifle this development for years to come and condemn whole regions to prolonged hardship.

Nevertheless, the proposed cuts will go to a vote in parliament and the arguments in favour should be addressed. Rishi Sunak, the architect of these cuts, has simply followed the line that, in a time of economic crisis in the UK, keeping the promise of providing 0.7% of GNI to foreign aid cannot be justified. He suggests he will be spending elsewhere nationally and that this is what we should be focussing on. This is a difficult point to productively counter because it is simply a matter of ideology. I personally find it easy to justify not cutting 0.2% from the aid budget as this money is simply so important. We will never be able to save or assist everyone, but if not cutting 0.2% of GNI contributions were to save tens of thousands of lives and assist many millions more, in my mind I wouldn’t think twice about retaining our contributions as promised. The truth is, even by maintaining the current 0.7% of contributions there would be a reduction in monetary value going to these nations because of the drop in productivity in the UK, so the percentage cut is a double-whammy. 

Rishi Sunak also callously argued that we are already doing enough to help those in need. Whilst we will still be supporting millions after the proposed cuts, the reduction in the aid budget will rip away resources from millions that already rely on us and create a vacuum of assistance. Given the economic circumstances globally, these resources are unlikely to be provided from elsewhere any time soon and in many cases these people will be left behind entirely. Regardless of this, as the UK would still be one of the top contributors to foreign aid in terms of percentage of GNI if it was dropped to 0.5%, the Chancellor seems to believe the position is still generous. Quite frankly, there is nothing generous about a decision that will lead to tens of thousands of deaths. It is true that the UK has been the top contributor of foreign aid out of all of the G7 nations in terms of percentage of GNI and that by cutting the contributions to 0.5% we would still be second in that list after Germany who contribute 0.6%. However, this whole argument is incredibly shortsighted. The UK is hosting the G7 summit in 2021 and now we have been seen to cut aid to the world’s poorest this could lead the way for many more nations to do the same. The result of this could mean countless billions in aid cut from the budgets of nations globally. At this time of worldwide crisis, the UK should be using its position to inspire other developed nations to do more for those in need and not less. Lets not forget that the UK became so prosperous in part because of their exploitation of many of the world’s poorest countries in the first place. 

The final argument is that we can’t afford it. This is linked to the first argument about justification and in reality it is simply whether we can economically justify borrowing to meet our promise of foreign aid contributions. The moral argument has already been laid out. Economically, the UK was already set to borrow £55bn for the 2020/2021 tax year. The Office for Budget Responsibility now estimates that the UK will borrow £394bn for the 2020/2021 tax year instead. There is no way around the fact that this is an astounding figure, but if you broke this figure down you would undoubtedly find that a certain percentage could not be justified or was misspent. You need only to look at the inflated PPE contracts that the government have been awarding their friends to know that this is the case. Or the millions given to individuals for simply brokering deals. The truth is that government ministers have had no problem justifying these as a good way to spend taxpayer money. If we must increase borrowing by a little over 1% in order to maintain our promise and support to the world’s poorest, this must be seen as a good way to spend taxpayer money too. 

The sad conclusion is that, as with any decision currently made by the government, their 79 seat majority means that there is unlikely to be a change of course. What will now be interesting is seeing how many Conservative MPs vote against the proposed cuts. Prominent Tory MPs such as Tobias Elwood and Jeremy Hunt have already publicly denounced the cuts and there are some reports that around 60 Tory MPs would vote against the government. Unfortunately, this still wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide and we are likely to condemn millions to further hardship. One now has to ask, is this what global Britain looks like? Are we now going to turn our back on those who most rely on us across the globe when the going gets tough? If so, these cuts may be our one-way ticket to becoming a pariah state. 

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