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Leader comment: How the UK’s aid budget was halved

21 April 2023

IT IS easy for a political leader to be associated with one event or policy, generally not of their choosing. Thus Tony Blair (“Iraq War”), Gordon Brown (“financial crash”), David Cameron (“Brexit”), Teresa May (“Brexit” again, or possibly “Boris Johnson”), Boris Johnson (“Partygate”), Liz Truss (“fiasco”). None of these, it may be noted, was tied round their necks by Opposition attack ads. It is, of course, too soon to guess what the present Prime Minister’s albatross will be, but he put in an early bid before coming to power. Thanks to his decision while Chancellor in 2020, he might end up as Rishi Sunak (“aid cuts”). The act of slashing the overseas-aid budget from 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5 per cent looks even more shaming two-and-a-half years on, as the effect of the cuts to existing programmes becomes ever more apparent. And it is, of course, unknowable what new aid programmes might have been created.

Or will it be Rishi Sunak (“small boats”)? Although the Home Secretary is in the lead in the UK’s response to the cross-Channel asylum-seeker traffic, the suggestion that the aid budget be raided to fund the provision for migrants in this country was signed off by the PM. It has been revealed that more than one quarter (28.9 per cent) of the 2022 aid budget was spent on refugees in the UK. So, in effect, the UK’s aid budget is now at 0.35 per cent of GNI, i.e. half what it used to be. This is leading to even harsher cuts than those forced through in 2021. Last month, Save the Children reported that its health and education work with women and girls in Afghanistan was likely to end after the UK Government reduced its promised funding from £7 million to just £1 million.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Cameron described meeting the 0.7-per-cent-of-GNI mark as one of his proudest achievements. Interviewed by The Times last November, the resurrected International Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, admitted: “When Labour left office in 2010, Britain was an acknowledged development superpower. When David Cameron was in government . . . we were definitely a development superpower. Today, let’s be frank, we are not a development superpower and we need to win that back.” Mr Mitchell spoke of unsuccessfully lobbying the new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to restore the budget. Mrs May, too, has argued for its restoration.

But where is the outrage? Has the Government manipulated opinion so successfully that the public believes that it makes sense to renege on the UK’s commitment to the world’s poorest and least stable regions? The error is more than moral or political. As has been frequently pointed out, 0.7 per cent of GNI is no greater a burden when a country’s economy dips than when it is thriving. Perhaps Mr Sunak’s drive to improve maths education will enable the public to join former Conservative leaders in a campaign to make the budget something to be proud of again.

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