Aid budget: Cruellest cuts will hurt Britain

Reducing foreign aid damages our international credibility while harming the world’s poorest, writes Baroness Sugg

The World Today Published 3 June 2021 Updated 9 June 2021 3 minute READ

Baroness Elizabeth Sugg CBE

Life peer who served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Six months on from the government’s decision to cut spending on international development from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, the considerable consequences are becoming apparent.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is yet to publish full details of where the cuts will fall, but as details emerge we are starting to see the real-world impacts: a 60 per cent cut in funding for Yemen – the world’s worst humanitarian emergency – where millions of people are on the brink of famine; an 85 per cent cut to the United Nation’s reproductive health programme which provides life-saving contraception and would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths. 

In addition, funding for clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities is being cut by 80 per cent, meaning 10 million people will  lose out this year. Even funding for the prime minister’s personal priority of girls’ education has been cut by 40 per cent over the average spend of the past four years.

The scale and impacts of these cuts are devastating and difficult to comprehend

The scale and impacts of these cuts on the lives and life chances of the poorest in the world are devastating and difficult to comprehend. But there is another cost. Breaking our commitment to 0.7 per cent is also affecting our credibility and authority on the global stage, hindering the government’s ability to deliver on its aims and ambitions for Global Britain.  

This year the UK is hosting a series of key global events – the G7 leaders meeting in June, a crucial global education summit in July, and the COP26 climate summit in November.  The purpose of these international occasions is to make tangible progress towards resolving the world’s biggest challenges. As hosts, these events are crucial opportunities to use our well-respected international leadership to leverage action towards our priorities and reinforce the positions that Britain has powerfully practised and preached for decades.  

As hosts, we should be leading by example. Instead, contradictions between the Global Britain our country is promoting and the actions we are taking are becoming ever more apparent, putting not only lives at risk – but our international reputation.

By cutting our support to international development, we are breaking not only the Conservative’s manifesto pledge and the promise made to the poorest people in the world, but also agreements made with the international community and our bilateral partners. We are reneging on commitments to long-standing allies and partners and walking away from good-faith agreements with UN and other international agencies.  Our reputation as a trusted partner risks being damaged for years to come.

Unprecedented criticism

Some of this criticism has been public, with the UN Population Fund stating it ‘deeply regrets the decision of our longstanding partner and advocate to step away from its commitments at a time when inequalities are deepening, and international solidarity is needed more than ever’.   Such criticism, from a UN agency to a friendly nation, is unprecedented. 

Britain is looking increasingly isolated on the global stage as the only G7 country to be cutting overseas aid

In the delicate world of diplomacy, much of the criticism will be private, with other countries looking at the UK with genuine confusion as to why the government has taken this action in the midst of a pandemic. Britain is looking increasingly isolated on the global stage as the only G7 country to be cutting overseas aid. Germany is going beyond the 0.7 per cent commitment while the United States is seeking to increase aid funding by $15 billion.  

The cuts to UK aid will directly impact our ability to persuade others to get behind our goals.  We have a well-deserved reputation for hosting global events.  The last big summit Britain hosted, for the global vaccine alliance GAVI, raised $8.8 billion to tackle global disease – thanks to the fact we could leverage our own investment to persuade others to do the same.

The Global Partnership for Education replenishment summit, which the British government will host in London in July, aims to raise $5 billion over five years to fund vital education for millions of children around the world. It has been calculated that Britain needs to contribute at least £600 million over five years to achieve this target. We are waiting to hear the UK pledge, but this now looks very difficult in the face of the 40 per cent cuts to education. If we are doing less on global education, how can we ask others to do more?

The same goes for the COP26 climate summit. As we ask countries to come forward with ambitious national plans to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change, Britain is cutting bilateral assistance – including funding for climate programmes – to most low-income countries by over 50 per cent. 

And on the biggest challenge of our time, to help end the Covid pandemic the G7 needs to raise significant funding for global vaccinations and the broader response. Yet while the UK initially played a key role, we have not been able to make any further financial contributions or concrete vaccine commitments in the six months since the aid cuts were announced.  Instead, we are cutting funding for health clinics, sanitation and scientific research that would have helped manage the pandemic. As G7 hosts, once again we are asking others to do more when we are doing significantly less.

There is a clear economic, moral and strategic case for why wealthier countries should come together to tackle the pandemic. The pandemic will not be over anywhere until it is over everywhere. 

If we are truly to ‘build back better’ from the Covid pandemic and deliver on Global Britain ambitions, the government needs to maximize the opportunities it has this year. To do so, it must lead from the front.This means backing its words with actions, putting its money where its mouth is, and restoring the commitment to 0.7 per cent.