“A PROMISE to the poor is particularly sacred,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. This is why, in the wake of reports that Boris Johnson is considering a delay to the cut in international aid (News, 27 November 2020), it is time to pay tribute to the growing number of Conservative MPs, including Theresa May, who have made it clear that they cannot vote for the cut. It would, as the former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has said, lead to 100,000 avoidable deaths, and go against the Conservative manifesto at the last General Election, in December 2019.
Indeed, it was Mr Mitchell into whose eyes the Prime Minister reportedly looked and insisted that a cut such as that proposed — from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income — would not be made.
Now, of course, Mr Johnson and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have claimed that the impact of Covid-19 on the UK economy means that such a cut is needed. But, as Gordon Brown — one of five living former prime ministers from both main parties now opposed to the cut — said this month: “Nothing shames our country more than . . . paying the bills for Covid off the backs of the poor — at home and abroad.” This is especially true at a time when, according to the World Bank and other forecasters, extreme global poverty is rising, for the first time in two decades.
And all this is in a year when “global Britain” seeks to project its “soft power” while hosting the G7 and COP climate summit. Yet it is unlikely that President Biden and his entourage, who could visit the UK this year, will be impressed by the UK’s giving out the message to 27 of the poorest countries in Asia and Africa that bilateral aid is being almost halved. By falling out of the group of Northern European nations that give 0.7, we have lost the leverage to get Germany, France, and others to do so, too.
BUT this is not just about the compassion, or even the “standing”, of our country: it is about justice.
The aid cut would mean that people lacked access to vital health care during the pandemic, at a time when — as the UN secretary-general, the World Health Organization, and scientists, as well as politicians of all parties and church leaders have said — no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Of course, it is assumed in the Westminster village that the aid cut will be popular with certain voters. But the people of this country have a proud tradition of supporting those in need around the world. The values of fairness and justice are echoed through their giving and their work. People give money, sign petitions, or bake cakes because they believe that helping those in need is a fundamental part of being human. Their giving has continued in the face of a pandemic. They expect their government to do the same.
SOME say that charity begins at home; but Covid has taught us that it does not end there. The point is that this is not an either-or. The overwhelming majority of people in the UK have reacted with a generous and imaginative spirit in their engagement with the most vulnerable. They have not just retreated into their corners, but have found ways to support and connect with the most isolated. It would be patronising to those people to say that extending such generosity of spirit to our neighbours far, as well as near, is beyond them.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in November, “I’ve seen the good done by UK aid around the world. Our generosity and strategic input has genuinely changed lives and communities for the better. Jesus tells us we mustn’t limit our concept of neighbour simply to those close by to us. We need to heed that message in the tough times as well as the good.”
Jennifer Larbie is Christian Aid’s UK advocacy and policy lead.