On Tuesday 13 July 2021, British MPs voted in favour of a £4bn reduction to the UK’s overseas assistance budget, reneging on a 2019 manifesto promise to keep aid spending at 0.7% of gross national income (GNI). The cuts, approved by a majority of 333 to 298, are projected to bring the foreign aid budget to its lowest point in 9 years.
The move has been the subject of widespread, bipartisan condemnation, with MPs and aid organisations united in their belief that the cuts will have dire consequences for vulnerable groups across the world.
In her speech to the house, former Prime Minister Theresa May stated that she “certainly does not believe” a return to the 0.7% level is forthcoming, adding:
“I have been in this house for nearly a quarter of a century. During that time I have never voted against a three-line whip. As prime minister, I suffered at the hands of rebels … [but] we made a promise to the poorest people in the world. The government has broken that promise. This motion means that promise may be broken for years to come. With deep regret, I will vote against that motion today”
In a statement released on Twitter, Labour’s leader Keir Starmer said that, “Cutting aid to help the world’s poorest during a pandemic is callous – and not in our national interest. Boris Johnson is damaging Britain’s reputation around the world.”
This sentiment was echoed by Danny Sriskandarajah, an Oxfam GB executive, who said that:
“The outcome of today’s vote is a disaster for the world’s poorest people….With more people in need of humanitarian assistance than at any time since World War II, aid is needed more than ever.”
Following the announcement of the aid cuts in November of last year, experts and charities estimated that 100,000 deaths and millions facing severe malnutrition would be the inevitable outcome. Jean-Michel Grand, executive director of Action Against Hunger, said that: “We estimate that these cuts could see as many as three million women and children lose access to often life-saving nutrition services. Clinics will close, nurses will lose their jobs, and children will lose their lives.”
In April 2020, the World Food Programme warned of a famine of “biblical proportions” without billions in aid spending, with the effects of this negligence now being experienced. Among the UK’s top recipients of bilateral aid are Ethiopia and Yemen, receiving £300m and £260m respectively; both of whom are now seeing acute malnutrition and famine on an unprecedented scale.
The government has, however, insisted that the reduction is only temporary, stating that they must ensure the UK is not borrowing money for day-to-day spending, and that underlying debt is falling as a percentage of national income before returning to the 0.7% level.
Despite this, many have questioned when these fiscal requirements will be met, with the Office for Budget Responsibility having previously suggested that underlying debt as a percentage of national income will not start falling before 2024/25.
Opening the debate to the house, Prime Minister Boris Johson said that it “was not an argument about principle – the only question is when we return to 0.7%”, adding that “when we are suddenly compelled to spend £407 billion on sheltering our people from an economic hurricane never experienced in living memory,
…there must inevitably be consequences for other areas of public spending.”
This position was reaffirmed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who said that approving the reduction makes commitment to the 0.7% aid target “more secure for the long term whilst helping the government to fix the problems with our public finances”.
Chair of the International Development Committee Sarah Champion said:
“The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the UK’s economy is forecast to return to pre-pandemic levels in the second quarter of 2020—faster than originally thought. If a return to economic normality is getting closer, why the need to introduce these extra tests before returning to 0.7%? They are just added roadblocks artfully placed by the Treasury on the track back to the legally mandated level of 0.7%”
The decision to cut the UK’s aid budget will undoubtedly have detrimental effects on vulnerable communities across the globe; therefore decisions to reduce funding for global development programmes must not be taken lightly. Equally, if these cuts are justified by the impact of the pandemic, then checks must be put in place to ensure the government returns to pre-pandemic levels of overseas aid as soon as possible.