Examining Impacts of the UK Foreign Aid Budget Cut

Outlining key issues raised by the UK government’s plan to reduce its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on overseas assistance each year.

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Published 30 November 2020 Updated 1 December 2020 3 minute READ

Examining connections between defence and overseas aid

Dr Patricia Lewis

The announcement of substantial increases in defence spending coming just a few days ahead of the decision to cut overseas aid is no coincidence. For several years now, some of the 0.7% of GNI (gross national income) has been allocated to UK military activities deemed to be in support of the development agenda.

Activities such as defence engagement, training and capacity-building for defence personnel in other countries, landmines and cluster munitions removal, defence and security advice to developing countries, logistics for humanitarian aid, counter-terrorism, and biosecurity support for developing counties are all seen as vital in assisting others and also as part of the overseas aid contribution.

These activities are characterized as being in the interests of UK security in terms of assisting other countries to develop their economies and long-term resilience, prepare for disease outbreaks and climate change effects, prevent or reduce conflicts, and intercept terrorist activities.

When funds were first openly taken from UK development aid and put into these defence-led activities, there was outcry from many in the development and humanitarian aid sector and questions were asked re the ‘DAC-ability’ of these activities – the DAC (development assistance committee) is the OECD determination as to what qualifies as development contributions). Over the last few years an uneasy truce emerged, but the principle of taking funds from the aid budget to give to the military and defence sector remains highly contested.

The long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is designed to fully integrate UK policy in all these areas, and the merger of the FCO and DFID government departments is – in part – a reflection of the desire to integrate polices at the nexus of security, defence, development, and international affairs.

However, the Integrated Review has been delayed due to a combination of the pandemic, Brexit, and an unrealistic timeframe for what is an in-depth process. The defence budget had to be sorted out more quickly and could not wait for the Integrated Review process to be completed.

The defence budget also requires more than one year’s settlement and quite an increase as new areas for defence – particularly in cyber technologies, space-based assets and infrastructure and new types of technologies onstream in the areas of machine learning, modelling, quantum technologies, and biotech – require serious investment.

It will be hard to make the case that these new areas for investment see immediate rewards for development aid – although space assets such as One Web will provide internet connectivity for millions of people in countries such as India. The cuts in development aid are clearly part of the bigger ‘integrated’ policy picture and, although much of the blame will be laid at the door of the Ministry of Defence, it should also be attributed to the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the impacts of Brexit in the years to come.

Families already in poverty could be hit hardest and SDGs put at risk

Stéphane Dubois

Women and girls have already been hit hard by COVID-19, especially the poorest and least able to bear further blows to their livelihoods, and the pandemic has exposed the extreme vulnerability of the 740 million women who work in the informal economy.

It is easy to forget that high unemployment rates in the UK will affect the sending of remittances overseas, further impoverishing families in the countries of origin already struggling with poverty.

This in turn may force people to move in search of better lives and, if the men and boys leave, the women and girls left behind are often more vulnerable or forced to live in displacement camps.

They can be prey to violence such as assault, rape, FGM (female genital mutilation), forced and early marriage, and sexual exploitation – creating a hugely different situation to the stated aims from the UK around empowerment and equality for women and girls.

Reduced aid funding or changes in priority for the UK may also hinder the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG1 on poverty reduction and SDG5 on equality for women and girls, let alone have an impact on promises made via agreements such as the Beijing Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights.

In preventing pandemics, we are only as strong as our weakest link

Professor David Heymann and Dr Osman Dar

Following the SARS outbreaks in 2003, the UK developed a comprehensive Health is Global strategy, in which each government department contributed in some way to global health and development with the understanding that strengthening public health in lower- and middle-income countries so disease outbreaks can be rapidly detected and contained is an important way to guarantee better health security in the UK.

Annual reporting on this strategy, with each department providing updates on their investments, showed this was an important and strategic government response. It is uncertain what impact, if any, this had on the David Cameron government’s decision to meet in 2013 the UN-suggested standard of 0.7% of GDP being devoted to international aid, but it is likely that it helped inform the decision for increased investment by DFID in development, and global health was a key benefactor.

However, since the publication of the 2015 UK Aid strategy, there has been a steady erosion of the lofty ambitions of the Health is Global Strategy, with a gradual shift in focus from providing for the most needy and vulnerable to ‘addressing global challenges in the national interest’. In practice, this has meant ever-increasing pots of money being directed towards health programmes in emerging economies where a perceived UK health industry interest exists.

With the dissolution of DFID and now the slashing of the aid budget, the real concern is that the pursuit of short-term business interests will trump the need to build public health capacities in the most vulnerable settings – those most prone to disease outbreaks and the rapid spread of infection. The government would do well to remember that, as far as global health security and the prevention of future pandemics are concerned, we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Helping others to achieve universal health coverage is now at risk

Robert Yates

At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, the UK signed a political declaration on universal health coverage (UHC) which aimed to provide effective health services to an additional one billion people by 2023.

As in the UK, where the national health service (NHS) relies on wealthy people subsidizing health services for the poor, this declaration stressed the importance of global solidarity in health financing to reach the goal. Essentially, the wealthy nations such as the UK would help strengthen health services in developing countries using overseas aid.

Slashing the UK aid budget by effectively 30 percent inevitably reduces health spending, meaning the UK will renege on its commitment to support UHC globally.

The UK’s former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell is right to highlight this cut could result in 100,000 preventable deaths globally, and the UK’s commitment to global solidarity has been further undermined by amassing 380 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines while multilateral mechanisms designed to allocate vaccines to poorer countries remain under-funded.

At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games the UK celebrated the NHS as one of its greatest achievements in bringing health care to everyone. Eight years later, in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis, its commitment to help other countries achieve universal health coverage has been found wanting.