WHAT an embarrassing way for Britain to start today’s meeting of the G7, as its leaders assemble in Cornwall. Britain has become the only member of the rich nations’ club to cut aid to the world’s poorest people at the height of a global pandemic — a decision for which Boris Johnson was excoriated by many of his own MPs this week and admonished by the President of the United States and by members of the US Congress. This is a very odd way to seek to enhance our international standing as Global Britain.
Government ministers claim that the cuts are essential in a Covid-hit economy. But no other country in the G7 has felt the need to do the same. Moreover, the money saved is trifling set against the nation’s general spending on the pandemic.
In truth, this is not about saving money, but about throwing some red meat to Little England populists who insist that the British public — particularly in the newly Conservative northern constituencies — are opposed to giving money to foreigners. Anyone who lives up north, as I do, can testify that such an uncompassionate response can be elicited only if you ask a loaded question. The basic decency of the British people when confronted with overseas disasters is as evident in the north as in the rest of the country.
Civil servants were given no more than seven working days to choose which projects would end. No impact studies were done on where the axe would fall. As a result, aid commitments under international treaties are being maintained, but aid to the poorest is being slashed hardest. Ironically, this is the very kind of aid of which the British public most approves: food assistance to the starving, the provision of clean water, and the health and education of children.
Reports from aid agencies in the field are spelling out graphically the consequences of these callous cuts. Feeding centres and clinics have already closed. Food-aid budgets in the world’s most severe humanitarian emergency, in Yemen, are being halved. A healthcare project reaching 2.6 million people in Bangladesh has had its funding totally axed. Funds to combat AIDS have been reduced by more than 70 per cent. Most bizarrely, this Government — so fond of the anti-Covid message “Now wash your hands” — is reducing its bilateral funding for clean water and sanitation by 80 per cent.
All this has been done in the teeth of the promise, enshrined in law by a Conservative Government, that we should spend a mere 7p out of every £10 of our national income on overseas aid — and despite a promise in the manifesto of every Conservative MP at the last election to maintain that commitment.
A number of ways have been suggested, by politicians of all parties, for the Government to roll back on this immoral and illegal act. Gordon Brown, who helped G7 finance ministers find a way out of the 2008 global financial crisis, has proposed that a post-Covid windfall from the International Monetary Fund could restore the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of our national income at a stroke. Whether Mr Johnson is prepared to risk the wrath of the populists to restore the international reputation of our nation is another matter.
Listen to Paul Vallely talk about the cut to the international aid budget on the Church Times Podcast