Britain defended yesterday its planned cuts to its overseas aid budget after an outpouring of protests that it marks a life-threatening retreat on the government’s ambitions to play a global role after Brexit.
Breaking an election manifesto promise, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government says it needs to slash spending on aid because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus causes the Covid-19 respiratory disease.
However, critics pointed out that the Treasury was releasing billions elsewhere for other priorities, including military spending, even as it pleads pandemic poverty in the budget overall.
One junior minister in the Foreign Office quit her post in protest.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted the cut was temporary, given the economic crisis brought on by Covid-19, and vowed no retreat in UK leadership across aid priorities such as girls’ education, famine relief, and preventative health programmes.
“Even in the toughest economic times, we will continue that mission, we will continue to lead,” he told parliament.
The sum lost for aid is roughly £4bn ($5.3bn) from a £15bn budget – the same awarded to a new development fund for the north of England, where Johnson’s Conservatives won seats at last year’s election on a promise to “get Brexit done”.
Mark Sheard, chief executive of the aid group World Vision UK, said that the government’s spending priorities would come at “the cost of lives” just as it prepares to take over the G7 presidency and host global summits on climate change and education next year.
“The UK’s commitment to ending poverty worldwide has always been something of which we could be rightly proud, but just when global leadership is most needed we are stepping back,” he said.
By cutting aid, the government had “relinquished its right to talk about ‘Global Britain’ leading the world”, he added.
However, Raab underlined British goals for the G7 and COP26 climate summit, and said that 2021 would be “a year of leadership for Global Britain as a force for good around the world”.
“We will prioritise measures to tackle climate change, protect biodiversity and finance low-carbon and climate-resilient technologies such as solar and wind in poor and emerging economies,” he said.
Criticism has come too from religious leaders, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the worldwide Anglican church, who called it “shameful and wrong”, as well as five former prime ministers.
Most pertinently for Johnson ahead of a parliamentary vote to amend the aid target, several Conservatives have broken ranks to join opposition parties in vowing to oppose it, pointing out that the UK risks falling foul of Joe Biden’s incoming US presidency.
“As President-elect Biden commits to a new era of Western leadership, here we are about to mark the start of our G7 presidency by cutting our overseas aid budget,” Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the House of Commons defence committee, told parliament.
“Downgrading our soft power programmes will leave vacuums in some of the poorest parts of the world that will further poverty and instability,” the Conservative MP said. “It is likely to see China and Russia extending their authoritarian influence by taking our place.”
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said the reduction would be “the cause of 100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children”.
The government says it is not rowing back on global commitments as it starts a new chapter outside the European Union, pointing in part to its involvement in research and future not-for-profit distribution of a vaccine against Covid-19.
The aid budget will remain at a hefty £10bn, ranking highly in the G7 club of rich nations, officials said.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak told Sky News that Britain is facing an “economic emergency” because of the pandemic.
“I don’t think anyone could characterise our level of support for the poorest countries as turning our back,” he added.
Yesterday UK-based development NGO network Bond said that the government seemed to have forgotten the “bottom billion” poorest people in the world, in a bid to redirect its aid towards “short-term, self-serving priorities”.
Some aid experts have criticised London’s efforts to realign its foreign aid spending more closely with security, defence and trade interests – areas highlighted by Raab yesterday.
In a letter to the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday, the heads of 17 aid agencies, green groups and think-tanks said the planned headline aid cut would “fail” the poorest countries who are “at the frontline of a climate crisis they did not cause”.
“It has never been more important that UK aid and climate finance work together to build resilience in the face of climate change and the Covid-19 crisis,” they wrote.
After the initial announcement of the aid reduction on Wednesday, which the government intends to reverse “when the fiscal situation allows”, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, said that the decision would “fundamentally undermine the UK’s climate leadership”.
“It will hinder poorer countries’ ability to tackle and adapt to the climate emergency, and sour the UK’s diplomatic relationships in the run-up to the crucial Glasgow climate conference next year,” she added in a statement.
Sonam Phuntsho Wangdi of Bhutan, who chairs the group of 47 least-developed countries at UN climate change talks, tweeted on Tuesday that at a time poor nations needed support more than ever, the aid cuts “take us in the wrong direction”.
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