Boris Johnson’s vision of world Britain as a “soft power superpower” is taking shape in some ways. The UK is hosting next month’s G7 summit and the crucial COP26 climate talks in November. In between, he will co-organize with Kenya in July a fundraising summit for global education. This makes the timing particularly unfortunate for Britain to cut its international aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, or around £ 4 billion. This not only erodes its soft potency, but has a very negative practical impact.
As the Financial Times reported, many non-governmental organizations are prepared for serious financial hardship. Dominic Raab, Minister of Foreign Affairs, last month identified seven priority areas for aid in which the government aimed to provide “value for the taxpayer”, including global health security and girls’ education. What he did not note is that funding for girls’ education is down 25 percent at pre-pandemic levels and for the humanitarian response down 44%. NGOs warn of large cuts in funding in areas such as sanitation projects, family planning, AIDS and neglected tropical diseases.
Ministers say the UK remains a “world leader in international development”, the world’s third-largest donor last year with £ 14.5 billion. Even its reduced spending will make it, as a proportion of GNI, one of the biggest donors of the G7 – although France can exceed the UK by next year. The pandemic has forced tough decisions; government borrowing in the last financial year amounted to £ 300.3 billion, the highest since World War II. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged to reverse aid cuts “when economic conditions permit”.
He should do it as soon as possible. Regardless of the strain on public finances, a global health emergency is precisely the wrong time to cut aid abroad. As the government expresses its commitment to global health security, cuts to various budgets could erode global efforts to fight infectious diseases such as Covid-19, including disease surveillance and future distribution channels for vaccines.
Doctors and academics have warned that broader cuts in aid to health, education and family planning will slow educational progress and development and accelerate insecurity. Climate activists note overseas development aid help finance climate change projects and support climate-vulnerable countries. The funding reduces the confidence of developing countries, which is essential to make the UK presidency of COP26 a success.
There are also ripple effects on research and universities. UK Research and Innovation, the public science funding body, wrote to businesses, higher education and research institutions earlier this year warn them a funding gap of £ 120 million for the coming year due to reductions in ODA.
The cut in overseas aid is popular with some Conservative voters. But he’s myopic and could bounce back on the UK. The longer it takes to control the coronavirus globally, the greater the risk that vaccine-resistant variants will cause new epidemics. Increased instability and deprivation in the developing world will increase migrants, some of whom will head to British shores.
The government’s foreign policy review in March set itself the goal of being a “problem-solving and burden-sharing nation.” Yet while the £ 4bn saved from aid cuts are small compared to UK borrowing over 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 cut aid. This summit – or its preparation – would be a good time to announce that it is reversing its decision.