Rishi Sunak’s plan to cut the UK’s foreign aid target is misguided – and will further harm Britain’s international reputation
International development has been one of the great success stories of the past 30 years. From 1990 until last year the number of victims of extreme poverty fell from two billion, or 36% of the world’s population, to 630 million, or just 8%. Unfortunately the years of progress could be wiped out by the long-term effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
The World Bank estimates that national lockdowns and the resulting economic catastrophe will push more than 100 million people into poverty this year.
In other words, the pandemic is not just a health crisis or an economic crisis, it is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis too.
In September, the head of the UN’s World Food Programme warned that the spread of coronavirus could lead to a widespread famine of biblical proportions, doubling the number of people who are unable to afford enough to eat. Debilitating hunger affects long-term health and can stunt children’s development, which is already threatened by the virus’s impact on education. A survey by the World Health Organisation found that schools were fully open in only six of 39 African countries during September.
The outlook is bleak as the inequality gap widens. In some countries the threat of famines is exacerbated by the worst locust plague for a century. Weak healthcare systems facilitate the spread of the disease. The effects of climate change obstruct the road to recovery.
So far the response from the world’s richer countries has been patchy. The UK is a leading donor to coronavirus research for developing a vaccine, and has pledged £750 million towards supporting marginalised communities, with the Department for International Development playing an influential role in the multilateral effort.
In April, the UK’s International Development Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, told a House of Commons select committee that having the Department for International Development (DFID) separate from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), with two secretaries of state, presented a ‘really good message to the rest of the world’ that helped to boost Britain’s soft power.
Two months later, Trevelyan was out of a job because the Prime Minister decided to merge the two departments.
The merger didn’t come as a surprise. Boris Johnson has made no secret of his desire to see the foreign aid budget spent more in line with the UK’s political and commercial interests. Nevertheless the surrender of development to the new Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) feels more like a hostile takeover than a joint venture.
In a nod to armchair racists Johnson has compared DfID’s £15-billion budget to a ‘giant cashpoint in the sky’. The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has announced that in future the aid budget will be integrated ‘with our diplomatic clout’ to maximise the impact of foreign policy.
Yet development policy is fundamentally distinct from foreign policy. It is meant to advance long-term shared collective interests by investing in activities overseas where the primary beneficiaries are not British voters. Diplomacy, on the other hand, prioritises a nation’s geopolitical and economic self-interest.
The UK created a dividing wall between these two policy areas after the scandalous discovery in 1988 of a secret defence agreement linking aid to Malaysia with a major arms export deal.
In any case, Johnson’s self-inflicted act of vandalism couldn’t have come at a worse time because the reorganisation in Whitehall will have ministers and civil servants looking inwards just as the world is facing the most serious health and economic crisis in almost a century.
Before Covid-19 there was already a consensus that faster progress is needed to deliver the goals of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. It must not be allowed to fray at the edges. Of course the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is looking for ways to cut public spending in the wake of the pandemic. But if the UK strays from its commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid to alleviate world poverty, or uses international development as a weapon to flog defence systems or offload refugees, its already tarnished reputation will suffer. And don’t forget that this is a global pandemic anyway. What infects the world’s poor inevitably infects us too. No one is safe from this or any other virus until we are all safe.
The Brexit soundbite of ‘Global Britain’ will not stop a myopic approach to the rest of the world. So we must be vigilant in holding the government to account on international aid, and in making sure there is no return to the bad old days of the Pergau dam.