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Paul Vallely: Why the press ignores the aid cuts

12 March 2021

It cares more about a royal row than poverty, says Paul Vallely

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A man carries a UK Aid bag in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, in December 2018

A man carries a UK Aid bag in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, in December 2018

SHOULD we focus on the big story or the important one? The brouhaha about Meghan and Harry — as Oprah Winfrey has reordered them — has consumed acres of newsprint. But little space has been given to the news that Boris Johnson is planning to slash two-thirds of the aid that we give to war-torn countries such as Syria, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan — and to halve aid to Yemen (Leader comment, 5 March).

So, at first, I decided not to write about the royal row. After all, I have previously catalogued the media’s unfair treatment of Meghan (17 Jan 2020), and how it feeds into the lazy tabloid archetypes that mean that Meghan must be the villain, not the heroine, in the British royal fairy tale.

Moreover, most of the reaction to the couple’s interview, in both mainstream and social media, has merely demonstrated the confirmation bias of commentators searching for evidence to support their prior beliefs about the couple. Some see it as an institutional issue, others as something more personal. A British-American divide is evident. So is a republican-royalist one. Yet little new light was being thrown upon the sad divide.

Does public opinion matter? Certainly it does on cuts to the aid budget. The UK commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of our gross national income on international development came out of a decade of campaigning, from Jubilee 2000 to Make Poverty History. It led to rich countries’ doubling aid and cancelling debt at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005. It was an all-party commitment, which the Tories maintained even under the austerity champion George Osborne. As a result, 65 developing countries have significantly reduced poverty.

But then a new selfishness set in. The numbers donating to development agencies fell from 18.7 million in 2013 to 9.9 million in 2019. Under cover of Covid, Mr Johnson has decided to slash our aid budget (News, 27 November 2020), arguing that we cannot afford it — ignoring the fact that, as aid is a percentage of our earnings, if national income falls, so does aid, anyway. On top of that, he wants to slash what we give — from a meagre 7p out of every £10 to a measly 5p. Our aid will now fall from a pre-pandemic total of £15 billion to £9 billion. This is a disgraceful betrayal of the world’s poor people.

Worse still, the cuts will come in the bilateral aid that goes directly from the UK to poor countries. This is the best-quality aid in the budget. But that is to be axed, because multilateral aid — which goes through the UN and other international bodies — cannot be touched because it is subject to legal guarantees.

Watching the whole of the Meghan-and-Harry interview, one of the most shocking revelations was the extent to which the royal family lives in fear of the verdicts of the tabloid press. The interview may prove a terrible misjudgement on Prince Harry’s behalf; for it will surely make it harder to heal the rift between him and his father and brother. But the revelations on race and mental health will elicit new sympathy for Meghan. If only the papers were as interested in heart-tugging interviews with the poorest people in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

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