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Paul Vallely: Policies to tackle global poverty are stronger on slogans than substance  

21 June 2024

Paul Vallely casts a critical eye on the parties’ pledges on international aid


A Rohingya man carries rice donated by UK Aid in a camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

A Rohingya man carries rice donated by UK Aid in a camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

WHO is my neighbour? When it comes to global poverty, the answer given by many politicians is alarmingly limited. For the first time in 25 years, extreme poverty and inequality are on the rise worldwide; yet the approaches set out by the main political parties in this week’s issue are stronger on slogans than substance — in many cases disturbingly so.

Although Reform UK did not respond to a request for Nigel Farage to contribute here, we know that he wants to slash what he calls “the foreign aid budget” by half. Foreign, here, is a dog-whistle word from the man who has declared this “the immigration election”, giving cover to the racist resentment of a section of the electorate.

For Mr Farage, aid is not an economic or moral matter; it is a populist shibboleth with which his supporters can decry those they call the “liberal elite”. He is appealing to the 26 per cent of the population who say in polls that aid is one of the top three areas of government expenditure — vacuously assuming that the aid budget is ten times bigger than it really is.

Rishi Sunak is more honest. The man who cut the aid budget from 0.7 per cent of our national income (that is just seven pence for every £10 that we earn) dismisses aid in pretty much a single word among a lexicon of Russia, China, Iran, democratic values, defence, tax cuts, pensioners, furlough, energy bills, and cost of living. It is fairly clear where Conservative priorities lie.

Labour is not much better. The party did not take up the invitation for Sir Keir Starmer to contribute here, presumably because, as an avowed atheist, he could not begin “As a Christian”, as David Lammy does. He lavishes praise on the efforts of Christian charities, but refuses to make a commitment to restoring aid to 0.7 per cent except when “fiscal circumstances allow”.

In contrast, Sir Ed Davey pledges the Liberal Democrats to restore the 0.7 per cent, and, moreover, to increase the proportion of UK aid committed to tackling climate change. Carla Denyer, for the Green Party, goes further, seeing global poverty, increased conflict, and the climate crisis, as deeply interwoven — and promises assistance to the world’s poorest, who are most disproportionately affected by climate change and the least responsible for it.

There are many reasons for deciding how to vote, but, for those for whom global poverty is high on the agenda, here are a few areas on which to press candidates more deeply.

Will aid be properly targeted on the poorest, as the White Paper on International Development last year recommended (News, 24 November 2023)? Will it support local leadership on development, climate, nature, and humanitarian action at a time when we are witnessing a 32-per-cent increase in people needing humanitarian assistance?

Is aid being diluted to allow military spending to count as aid — or diverted into spending in the UK, with more than one third of the aid budget currently spent on housing asylum-seekers, and aid to Africa at its lowest percentage this century?

Is our development strategy adequately addressing harmful debt repayments and unequal terms of trade? Are we sufficiently assisting poor nations to mitigate the impact of global warming through compensatory financing mechanisms?

There will be siren voices who suggest that, when times are hard, we should have other priorities. But, surely, it is when times are hard that we must not forget our poorest neighbours.

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