The unjustifiable human cost of the UK’s foreign aid cuts

Tomos Owen

It is almost six months since I initially wrote on the appalling decision by the UK government to cut foreign aid by £4bn across the world. At the time, the government’s decision was met by disbelief. While the whole world struggled with the pandemic, the UK chose to insulate themselves and cut funds to those that need it most around the globe. The saving of £4bn, a drop in the ocean when you consider that the UK’s GDP was £1.96trn in 2020, was too big to pass by the government. There was an outpouring of responses from various organisations explaining how this would impact their work in theory. Unfortunately, these theories have now turned to reality and the true cost of the government’s callousness is being felt across the globe. 

In true fashion, the announcement in April about where the remaining foreign aid budget would be spent lacked any transparency and the government opted to avoid initial scrutiny by only releasing the figures via a written statement at the end of a working day. The statement remained silent on cuts and provided no comparable figures from previous years, leaving campaigners having to work out for themselves where the cuts had been made. The backlash soon followed, with an alliance of 200 NGOs calling the cuts “a tragic blow for many of the world’s most marginalised people”. Once you dig into the figures, it is clear to see just how tragic the cuts will be. 

It is worth starting with a few of the areas that the government has called their “priorities”. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said in his statement that these would be, “poverty reduction, including getting more girls into school, providing urgent humanitarian support to those who need it most, and tackling global threats like climate change, COVID recovery and other international health priorities”. On the face of it, this is a commendable list and these would be top priority for many in favour of international aid. However, rather than these areas of priority receiving increased funding to tackle the problems, they are actually facing significant cuts in many cases. 

Save the Children has calculated that £400m will go to girls’ education from the recent announcement, but this is down by almost a quarter of the 2019 figure which was £536m and down by 6% on the 2020 figure of £424m. For the government to call girls’ education a priority, without addressing the reality that the most recent funding package means that girls’ education will actually have to be restricted in comparison to previous years, they are seriously misleading taxpayers. Unless the government has found a way to drastically increase the efficiency of how this money is spent, they should call a spade a spade and admit that these cuts demonstrate their feeling that providing aid to the world’s poorest during a pandemic is not one of their top priorities. 

Other areas of the aid budget that constitute the government’s “priorities” equally don’t fare well when you compare them to the previous year’s figures. In 2019, the UK provided £1.5bn in humanitarian aid, but this has seen a massive cut to now only £906m. Funding for healthcare, clearly the world’s biggest priority given the pandemic, has also seen cuts in the UK aid budget from £1.41bn in 2019 to £1.305bn this year. The callousness of the government is truly revealed with this healthcare funding, as the figures actually include an increase in funding to tackle COVID-19. Rather than injecting new money to tackle the virus across the world, the government is redistributing money from tackling other key healthcare issues. Kevin Watkins, the chief executive of Save the Children, put this succinctly when he said, “the health budget, which they have cut by 14% from last year, includes an increase in funding for COVID-19. They are financing COVID by cutting child health and nutrition programmes that will cost lives”. There is yet to be a justifiable reason from the government as to why these draconian cuts are necessary. 

One last area of note is sexual health and family planning; both of which Britain has a longstanding history of funding across the globe. Both of which are now areas seeing significant cuts in the UK’s aid budget. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has revealed that the UK’s initial £155m promise to the UNs sexual health and reproductive agency has been slashed to now only £23m. The UNFPA noted that this money, which was expected and its uses planned for, would have helped to prevent 4.2 million unsafe abortions, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 250,000 maternal and infant deaths. These are truly shocking figures. There is one phrase that pops to mind and one that I have unfortunately used several times before when talking about the actions of this UK government, and that is pariah state. The UK is becoming more and more insular, and the world is unlikely to forget that when many nations were in more need than ever we turned our backs on them. 

There will always be those that argue that following the pandemic and our slide into significant debt, we must make these cuts. However, we have seen that we can afford this debt when necessary and the cost to benefit ratio of foreign aid is far higher than many other areas of spending that the government sees fit to implement. How are we forgetting that the government thought it appropriate to spend almost £1m on repainting a plane, £2.6m on a new media suite for their press briefings, and in one case £50m on unusable PPE, all in the middle of a pandemic? This is not to mention the billions spent on the Track and Trace scheme that failed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 in the UK. The UK government has time and time again used taxpayer money to feed their own interests and the foreign aid cuts are a manifestation of this mentality. 

The saga of foreign aid cuts will continue as the UK government has not yet released the figures of the country-by-country foreign aid spend, leaving aid agencies unable to plan for how resources will be used. The mistrust in the government runs so deep that many aid agencies believe that this is simply because the government wants to avoid bad publicity as they prepare to chair the G7. What is clear is that the government can and should reassess the cuts urgently. If ever that was a time for a government U-turn, it would be now. 

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