THE decision to cut UK aid spending is “shameful and wrong”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said. He urged MPs to vote against it when the proposal comes before Parliament.
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced during his Spending Review in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the UK would temporarily reduce the amount that it spends on overseas aid from 0.7 per cent of the country’s gross national income (GNI) to 0.5 per cent.
Mr Sunak said: “During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people, especially when we’re seeing the highest peace-time levels of borrowing on record.
“I have listened with great respect to those who have argued passionately to retain this target, but, at a time of unprecedented crisis, the Government must make tough choices. I want to reassure the House that we will continue to protect the world’s poorest, spending the equivalent of 0.5 per cent of our national income on overseas aid in 2021, allocating £10 billion at this spending review.”
Mr Sunak went on to say that the Government intended to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”. He referred to OECD data which, he said, showed that the UK would “remain the second-highest aid donor in the G7, higher than France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the United States. And 0.5 per cent is also considerably more than the 29 countries on the OECD’s development assistance committee, who average just 0.38 per cent.”
Mr Sunak said that defence spending would rise to more than £24 billion, which the Treasury said would be “the biggest sustained increase in 30 years”.
Shortly after the Spending Review, Archbishop Welby posted on Twitter: “The cut in the aid budget — made worse by no set date for restoration — is shameful and wrong. It’s contrary to numerous Government promises and its manifesto. I join others in urging MPs to reject it for the good of the poorest, and the UK’s own reputation and interest.”
The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, posted on Twitter: “Today’s announcement to cut the aid budget is the wrong decision at the wrong time. Not only does it break promises we have made, it undermines that fundamental interconnectedness we have as a global community. We may make a financial saving. But we are all poorer as a result.”
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, said after the announcement that even a temporary cut was “a major moral failure”.
Bishop Holtam pointed out that 0.7 per cent had been “enshrined in law by a Conservative Government”, and that the Conservative Party had pledged in its General Election manifesto last year to “proudly maintain” the commitment to 0.7 per cent. He had written to the Prime Minister on Tuesday to remind him of this.
Bishop Holtam said: “Have we not learned that this pandemic needs a global response from us. . ?
“Even the temporary cut in overseas aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI is a major moral failure, particularly in a time of global pandemic. It is also a political failure as it is against our national self-interest because it reduces our influence in the exercise of ‘soft power’.”
The timing of the announcement was “terrible”, Bishop Holtam said, given that the UK was due to chair the G7 and preside over the UN Climate Change Conference (CoP). “It will damage our international standing and alienate allies who will be needed if CoP is going to be successful in reducing the impact of climate change, protect lives, shore up climate resilience and ensure a just transition to a carbon neutral world.
“We have a choice about our spending priorities. It is lamentable that our Government has decided against our commitment to protect the lives of the poor and build up their resilience.”
The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said: “This action undermines reassurances given previously by Ministers on the floor of the House of Lords to honour the 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment. There is no assurance of when 0.7 per cent will be restored.
“While I fully acknowledge the scale and complexity of the challenges the government now faces, we remain one of the richest countries in the world. Britain benefits from infrastructural and economic resilience that too many of the world’s poorest countries and communities lack. Cutting our development spending will heap a disproportionate extra load onto nations already overburdened by debt, poverty, and other developmental challenges.”
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, posted on Twitter that she had been given assurances “by the relevant Minister in the [House of Lords] . . . that this would not happen” (News, 11 September). “Of course our economy has suffered. Other nations have suffered even more. Please, of your mercy write to your MP with your concern.”
Christian Aid’s director of public affairs and campaigns, Patrick Watt, said after the Chancellor’s announcement: “Cutting the aid budget during a global pandemic is like closing fire stations during a heatwave. These are tough times and the Government has tough decisions to make, but balancing the books on the backs of the poor isn’t the way to do it.
“The people of this country have a proud tradition of never turning a blind eye to those in need around the world. As the Government prepares to host world leaders at next year’s critical G7 and COP26 climate summits, it now has a moral duty to put inequality and injustice in the world’s poorest countries at the heart of its agenda.”
The chief executive of Tearfund, Nigel Harris, said: “While it’s right the Chancellor addresses the needs of people in the UK, we must not forget our global community. People living in poverty are already pushed to the brink of survival everyday. This decision by the UK Government is a cruel, badly calculated decision and could not have come at a worse time.
“Cutting the aid budget will have dire consequences for many of the people Tearfund works alongside who are suffering the twin horrors of Covid-19 and climate change.”
The decision to cut overseas aid comes after a week of intense pressure from NGOs, charities, political figures, and religious leaders, prompted by rumours that first surfaced last week.
At the end of last week, 185 organisations — including Christian Aid, Save the Children, and Friends of the Earth — signed an open letter, which said that any cut in the £15-billion UK aid spend would be “a significant threat” to development, and could “seriously jeopardise” the UK’s long-term global anti-Covid-19 efforts.
On Monday, the General Synod inserted a last-minute clause into its coronavirus resolution, calling for the aid budget to be preserved.
Later that same day, Archbishop Welby told CNN that the 0.7 commitment had been “one of the great moral and ethical achievements of this country”.
He continued: “Cutting back from that when 150 million are falling into poverty around the world, where the economic pandemic is as bad as the Covid pandemic and is killing as many people, just goes straight against the things we believe and the things that really matter to us.
“And it goes straight against our Christian heritage: the teaching of Jesus Christ that your neighbour is the one whose needs you know, who you can reach out and help. We know these needs, we are one of the best in the world at meeting them. It is not a moment to cut.”
The Archbishop went on to say that the 0.7 per cent target was “right in and of itself, and it’s also right in dealing with Covid, because we won’t deal with Covid anywhere unless we deal with it everywhere — and therefore the ability for vaccines to be distributed, for nutrition, for education, for communication, which our international aid effort is so good at”.
And in an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday evening, Archbishop Welby said that he had seen the “extraordinary impact” of the UK’s aid in places such as Eastern Congo. “All that would be lost. I think it would be a really serious setback.”
He said that it was “very unlikely” that the cut would be temporary, but, even if it was, it “effects people who are on really low incomes in really vulnerable places”.
Five former prime ministers criticised the plans, after reports surfaced last week. David Cameron told the Telegraph on Saturday that a cut would be “a moral, strategic, and political mistake”.
“Moral, because we should be keeping our promises to the world’s poorest, not breaking them. A strategic error, because we would be signalling retreat from one of the UK’s vital acts of global leadership. And a political mistake because the UK is about to chair the G7 and important climate change negotiations.”
Tony Blair said that the 0.7 commitment had been “a great British soft power achievement. It isn’t about charity. It’s enlightened self-interest. . . To change it is a profound strategic mistake, and I sincerely hope the Government will not do it.”
Sir John Major told The Times on Wednesday: “Cutting our overseas aid is morally wrong and politically unwise. It breaks our word and damages our soft power. Above all, it will hurt many of the poorest people in the world. I cannot and do not support it.”
The Times also reported that Theresa May was understood to be opposed to the cut.
In a letter to The Times on Wednesday, the former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell wrote that Mr Johnson should reflect on how reneging on the election promise to maintain 0.7 per cent “would be received by our international allies”.
The letter continued: “Reaching international agreement next year on vaccines, economic recovery and climate change will require nations to work together and make ambitious pledges for progress. Failing to honour such an important promise, however, will undermine confidence in us and will send the wrong message to nations with which we need to forge new, post-Brexit partnerships.”