Boris Johnson’s vision of Global Britain as a “soft power superpower” is in some ways taking shape. The UK is hosting next month’s G7 summit, and the crucial COP26 climate talks in November. In between, it will co-host with Kenya in July a fundraising summit for global education. That makes this a particularly unfortunate moment for Britain to be reducing its international aid budget from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent, or by about £4bn. This is not only eroding its soft power, but having a highly negative practical impact.
As the Financial Times has reported, many non-governmental organisations are braced for serious financial pain. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, last month identified seven priority areas for aid in which the government aimed to provide “value for taxpayers”, including global health security and girls’ education. What he did not note was that funding for girls’ education is down 25 per cent on pre-pandemic levels, and for humanitarian response down 44 per cent. NGOs warn of big funding cuts in areas including sanitation projects, family planning, Aids and neglected tropical diseases.
Ministers say the UK remains a “world leader on international development”, the world’s third-biggest donor last year at £14.5bn. Even its reduced spending will leave it, by proportion of GNI, one of the largest donors in the G7 — though France may overtake the UK by next year. The pandemic has forced tough decisions; public borrowing in the last fiscal year was £300.3bn, the highest since the second world war. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged to reverse the aid cuts “when the economic situation allows”.
He should do so sooner rather than later. Whatever the strains on public finances, a global health emergency is precisely the wrong time to be cutting overseas aid. While the government voices a commitment to global health security, reductions in various budgets could erode global efforts to tackle infectious diseases such as Covid-19, including disease surveillance and future vaccine distribution channels.
Doctors and academics have warned that broader aid cuts to health, education and family planning would slow educational progress and development, and accelerate insecurity. Climate campaigners note overseas development assistance helps to fund climate change projects and support climate-vulnerable countries. Funding cuts damage trust from developing nations, vital to making the UK’s COP26 presidency a success.
There are knock-on effects, too, on research and universities. UK Research and Innovation, the public science funding body, wrote earlier this year to businesses, higher education and research institutions warning them of a £120m shortfall in funding for the coming financial year due to ODA cuts.
Reducing overseas aid is popular with some Conservative voters. But it is shortsighted and could rebound on the UK. The longer it takes to control coronavirus globally, the greater the risk of vaccine-resistant variants seeding new outbreaks. Increased instability and deprivation in the developing world will increase migrants, some of whom will head for UK shores.
The government’s foreign policy review in March set a goal of being a “problem-solving and burden-sharing nation”. Yet while the £4bn saving from aid cuts is tiny against the borrowing the UK has taken on in the past year, it can fund vital work. Of the G7 countries that will meet in Cornwall in June, Britain is the only one to be cutting aid. That summit — or the run-up to it — would be a good moment to announce it is reversing its decision.