The past few years have been a tough time for UK foreign aid. Once renowned as a global development superpower, Britain’s status has been repeatedly called into question as the aid budget has suffered a series of highly damaging cuts.
Britain’s ability to respond both to humanitarian crises, such as famine in the Horn of Africa, as well as long-term development projects to reduce global poverty, has become ever more constrained, leading to some unpalatable decisions about what is funded and what is not. As Britain draws back from development, our ability to influence across the globe recedes as well.
Less development, less influence
Legally, the aid budget is pegged to a target, so when the economy shrinks, the budget shrinks too. On top of that, the decision to drop the aid spending target from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income created a double hit, compounded by global interest rate rises forcing up the price of essential products. Pressure on how that budget is spent continues to increase.
There has been a tendency to use the aid budget as a sponge, soaking up costs from across government departments that fit the internationally agreed definition of what can be classed as aid. This includes the costs attributable to a refugee’s first year in their host country.
Factors such as the crisis in Ukraine have meant that these costs now account for a significant proportion of the total budget. With the government treating the 0.5 per cent target as an absolute ceiling for aid spending, it has been forced to limit bilateral spend by a further 30 per cent. Put bluntly, it is again cutting the types of projects that work to improve the lives of some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world.
When forecasting how the aid budget for 2022 would be spent, the government could not have anticipated that Russia’s illegal war would create the largest movement of people in Europe since the Second World War. But it is making a political choice to classify the costs of accommodating these refugees as aid, which few other countries are doing.
At a recent International Development Committee session, we asked Sir Philip Barton, the top civil servant at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to explain how the aid budget was being managed amid so much volatility. There were few clear answers.
No longer a reliable partner
The FCDO appears to be trying to manage a constantly fluctuating budget on a week-by-week basis with the threat of even more severe cuts looming on the horizon. I asked Sir Philip how this uncertainty was affecting the international reputation of British aid. He readily admitted that the UK is no longer seen as a reliable partner.
For the past two years, my committee has heard repeated stories of programmes that have been cut with little or no notice. These are programmes that delivered for communities and changed lives, such as sub-Saharan Africa projects that provide sexual and reproductive health assistance to women and girls. As well as providing a crucial service, organizations delivering these projects built up trust with communities, only for funding to be ripped away. Why would those communities or partners trust Britain again?
Our credibility at the multilateral level is also being damaged. Britain recently missed the pledge deadline at a summit for the Global Fund, which is tackling malaria, tuberculosis and Aids. Other donors, such as Canada and Germany, increased their pledge by 30 per cent on the previous summit. All ‘non-essential’ aid was paused until after the Autumn Statement, but it was welcomed that after this the UK eventually committed to a reduced amount to the Global Fund.
When the government merged the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in September 2020, it reasoned that an effective international policy required greater cohesion between diplomacy and development. It sought to place Heads of Mission as the lead of all UK government work in country. But cuts to the aid budget have blunted a key tool in the ambassadorial toolbox, eroding their ability to influence events diplomatically.
A tiny fraction of government spending
Britain’s public finances are undeniably in a difficult state. But the aid budget represents a tiny fraction of government spending and delivers over and over again. It also shows that Britain can be a force for a good in an increasingly polarized world. Why would we jeopardize that? Why would we cower away from wanting to make the world a better place?
We know that the triple threat of conflict, climate and Covid has set back development. We know what a failure to fund aid programmes means in practice – communities won’t be given access to clean water or routine vaccinations, women will lose access to family planning.
Without action, and crucially, predictable funding, we will see a much more unequal, insecure world.
Read more: Minister of State for Development Andrew Mitchell defends Britain’s reduced aid spending