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Leader comment: Aid cut? Really?

19 November 2020

WHAT is wrong with this headline from The Times on Tuesday: “Foreign aid spending faces cut to pay for coronavirus crisis”? For an answer, we might turn to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. He told a global gathering less than two months ago: “The pandemic is really an acid test of our international resolve to work together . . . in order to save lives and rebuild our economies. . . So we need to work together.” The spending review is imminent, and along comes a rumour that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, wishes to expand the Government’s law-breaking habit to include the International Development Act 2002, reducing the UK’s commitment to overseas aid from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. This would scoop approximately £4 billion out of the aid budget. The Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, when questioned about it on LBC, failed to kill the rumour: “I think it is a legitimate question for us to ask at this moment in time whether or not it would be wise to spend somewhat less in light of the fact public finances are in a really challenging situation” — overlooking the fact that the pandemic’s effect on the economy means that the UK will already be spending less. The question might be legitimate. The proposed answer is not.

Mr Raab is said to be resisting the move. It would be unkind to suggest that this is because he had been planning to spread the aid budget even more widely across the whole of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to include climate-change development, cyber protection, MoD hospital ships, and the like. It could well be that, like every sensible person, he recognises that Britain’s reputation after 31 December will need every scrap of respectability that it can find. To cut the aid budget at this point would be to take something of which the country can be genuinely proud and replace it with a scandal.

Set aside — since the Government seems ready to — the genuine suffering that will result from reducing the funding that currently flows to the world’s poorest people. Set aside, too, the undermining of efforts to tackle the coronavirus if the UK forgets how quickly it spread across borders and looks simply for a national solution. Let us suppose, as seems increasingly to be true, that the Government really is focused only on these islands. Have ministers no interest at all in the moral and spiritual health of the people whom they serve? Or have they done too well out of infantilising the electorate, and playing on their fears?

The tragedy is that there is a good story to tell. The UK is the largest donor to the World Health Organization. It has signed up to COVAX, the WHO-organised agreement to ensure that supplies of effective vaccines are shared equally between developed and developing countries. Instead of promoting generosity and expansiveness, however, the Government seems to be allowing a national myopia to develop. Has it no shame?

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