An extension to what critics call a ‘grotesque betrayal’ of vulnerable groups globally, the British government plans to continue slashing overseas aid, with spending on the newly formed Open Societies and Human Rights directorate set to fall by as much as 80%.
The directorate is primarily focused on efforts to promote human rights, anti-corruption and media freedom in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, the leader of the SNP Iain Blackford MP condemned the proposals, calling for greater bipartisan oversight of the reduction in aid spending:
“Only this morning, it has emerged that the UK Government also plan to cut their human rights support and anti-corruption measures by a staggering 80%. If the Prime Minister is prepared to stand up for such callous cuts, is he also prepared to guarantee that he will allow for a straight vote on them in the House of Commons?”
One of the projects reportedly threatened by these cutbacks is a £16m initiative aimed at advancing press freedom across the Middle East and North Africa – a region which has seen a “decline in freedom of expression, media freedom and civic space”, according to participants of the 2020 Global Conference for Media Freedom.
The UK took a global role with the launch of the media freedom initiative by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) under the previous Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The UK also co-hosted the 2019 Global Conference for Media Freedom in London. However, though Dominic Raab has been supportive, he has had no direct involvement and this may be reflected in the budget cuts.
Despite the UK government’s attempts to depict post-Brexit Britain as a global “force for good”, these cutbacks come as part of a precipitous contraction of overseas aid spending.
Earlier this month, leaked Foreign Office internal documents revealed proposed aid cutbacks of more than 50%, with Syria and Libya seeing a reduction in funding of 67% and 63% respectively.
Drastic cuts to the aid designated to Yemen – £164m to £87m – were described as a “death sentence” by UN Secretary-General António Guterres; with malnutrition rates at record highs, around 5 million Yemenis on the brink of famine and two-thirds of the population dependent on humanitarian assistance, the accuracy of Guterres’ determination is irrefutable.
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said the changes would undermine Britain’s “global reputation”, stating that:
“The phrase ‘global Britain’ rings hollow. As the UK prepares to host the G7, the reduction of assistance to Yemen is a stark warning of what is to come as the government delivers on widespread cuts across the entire UK aid portfolio”
Andrew Mitchell, Former Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, said reducing the aid budget to less than 0.7% of gross domestic income (GDI) remains unlawful without a change to legislation, adding that:
“To grow the budget to 0.7% from 0.5% took four years, but the equivalent cut is being undertaken in a matter of weeks”
Boris Johnson has said the decision to cut aid budgets is justified by the current Covid-19 crisis, stating that “current straitened circumstances” make reductions necessary, although no other G7 country is cutting its aid programme to the same extent.
It is imperative that funding, crucial to the provision of humanitarian assistance to some of the world’s most vulnerable groups, be at least 0.7% of GDI. The Covid-19 crisis should not be an excuse to reduce aid spending, but rather a reason to increase it.