Andy Gregg says Government overseas aid cuts are harmful, unprincipled, unjustified and weaken Britain’s influence
Over thirty years ago, the Live Aid concerts were held as part of a response to apocalyptic BBC pictures of famine caused by war and drought in the Tigray province of Northern Ethiopia. The world attention that was focused on the scenes of utter destitution in 1985 resulted, over some years, in a push to get Britain and other developed countries to meet a target set by the OECD of spending 0.7% of their GDP on aid. This target was finally adopted by both main political parties in the UK and was one of Boris Johnson’s manifesto promises at the election in December 2019.
The Government’s decision, only just over a year later, to renege on this promise and cut its aid spend to 0.5% of GDP comes at a time when another civil war in Tigray is set to cause a massive famine on a similar scale to that in 1985. How sad that as a country we are moving backwards in our commitment to provide aid and assistance to some of the poorest countries on Earth. Johnson’s Government claims that this is only a temporary cut due to the need to start rebalancing the UK’s budget as a result of expenditure on the Covid pandemic. Characteristically, the Government is not saying when they will move to restore the aid budget to 0.7% of GDP. At the same time, all comparable developed countries are expanding, or at the very least maintaining, their level of aid spending. In April, the UN’s food agency warned of famines of “biblical proportions” in 2021 without billions in aid from the developed nations.
A leaked report earlier this year suggests that officials are considering cutting aid to Syria by 67% and Lebanon by 88%. Aid to Somalia could drop by 60%, South Sudan 59%, and the Democratic Republic of Congo by 60%. Of course, these are all countries in conflict and turmoil which are responsible for producing a large proportion of the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom eventually arrive in the UK (to the consternation of Priti Patel). This is the Government cutting off its nose to spite its face. Cuts to Syria and Lebanon are particularly hypocritical at a time when the Government has moved to cut numbers of asylum seekers and refugees arriving “legally” in the UK, claiming that it wants its spending on refugees to take place in the parts of the world that produce or currently host refugees (so as to try to keep them there). As the UN’s chief humanitarian coordinator, Mark Lowcock, says, “a decision to turn away from Syria today will come back to bite us tomorrow”, with increasing chances of another huge exodus to Europe and eventually the UK. He concludes: “millions of Syrians are resorting to desperate measures to survive”.
Just across the Red Sea from Northern Ethiopia lies Yemen, which is currently in the grip of the world’s worst famine. As in Tigray, this is also caused by a civil war in which Britain is selling many of the weapons that are responsible for the blockade and bombings that are causing such a huge loss of life. Aid to Yemen will be cut by half at a time when it has never been needed more. At the same time, UK weapons sales to the Saudis, who are largely responsible for the war (and thus the famine), are set to increase.
A number of charities, aid experts and MPs have declared that the cuts could see a million girls lose out on school, up to three million women and children go without lifesaving food, 7.6 million fewer women and girls losing access to family planning and contraception, and 5.6 million children left unvaccinated, potentially causing up to 100,000 deaths. Women and girls in the Global South are likely to be by far the worst hit.
A group of Tory MPs has obtained a legal opinion that the Government’s decision is unlawful, and it is likely that there will be a substantial (though not decisive) rebellion amongst Tory backbenchers if and when the cuts come before the House of Commons (the Government is currently refusing to allow them to be tabled). Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defence select committee, said: “The recruiting sergeants of Hezbollah, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Isis and other armed militia will be the immediate beneficiaries of the cuts to the UK’s humanitarian programmes. China and Russia will not hesitate to fill the vacuum we create.”
The UK is about to chair the COP26 climate change conference and is promoting itself as a lead player at the G7 summit. As the world cries out for global leadership, the decision to cut our aid spending sends the message that the UK is just not up to the job and is likely to make the Government’s objectives for the two conferences unachievable. At a time when the UK needs to be exerting its soft power to strike trade deals after our catastrophic exit from the EU, this is just not what a global Britain with world-leading soft power and influence is supposed to look like. Indeed, some of the cuts will adversely affect Britain and the world’s ability to deal with the next pandemic due to cuts to Britain’s budget for pandemic and disease research.
UK Research and Innovation has told businesses and research institutions that cuts to overseas development assistance will leave a hole of £120 million in 2020-21, putting vital research in both climate change and pandemic management at risk. Lifesaving research on fighting drought and the climate crisis in Africa has already been closed as a result of UK Government cutbacks, damaging Britain’s reputation as a trusted partner in future collaborations. At the same time, the cuts have left openings for China to move even further into a position of influence in Africa – arguably against our own strategic interests.
Meanwhile, the Government has recently closed the Department for lnternational Development, which has now been subsumed as part of the Foreign Office. The primary strategic aims of this department do not include the effective distribution of aid or the promotion of international development. Instead, the strategic driver of the Foreign Office is Britain’s diplomatic and military prowess in the world. The first of these, our diplomatic posture, will be fatally undermined by the decision to make such large cuts in development aid. The increasing attempts to link aid to Britain’s military defence and trading interests will tie us in even more closely to some of the most unpleasant regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, as well as diminishing our ability to be seen as an honest broker in international affairs. A further point is that in addition to the general aid programme, there will be a substantial need for debt relief over the next period. However, starting this year, debt relief is now being considered as part of overseas development aid, which is bound to put an even larger squeeze on other aid.
The Government’s cuts to aid are not only deeply unprincipled and cynical but they are likely to do serious and substantial harm to our longer-term interests, both internationally and here in the UK. This is a very steep price to pay for decisions that (like so many other current Government policies) are designed to appeal to little Englanders and “my country first” bigots and xenophobes.