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Cuts to aid budget are an ‘act of vandalism’, says peer

26 April 2024

Christian Aid

Lord Bruce speaks at the Faith and Development Conference on Wednesday

Lord Bruce speaks at the Faith and Development Conference on Wednesday

A FORMER chair of the International Development Select Committee, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Bruce, has described the Government’s cut to the overseas aid budget as an “act of vandalism”.

He was delivering the keynote address to a conference at Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday, organised by Christian Aid and Islamic Relief Worldwide to discuss the part played by faith communities in development work.

In 2021, the Government reduced UK spending on overseas aid from 0.7 per cent of the country’s gross national income (GNI) to 0.5 per cent, pledging to restore it “when fiscal circumstances allow”. It has not been restored.

Much damage had been done to the UK aid and development programme when Boris Johnson’s government cut spending and merged the Department of International Development with the Foreign Office, Lord Bruce told the gathering of scholars, development workers, and faith representatives. Programmes had to be halted mid-flow, with deleterious effects both on the people and areas with which projects were working, and on the UK’s reputation as a trustworthy partner.

This had been exacerbated by the decision to spend more than one quarter of the aid budget domestically, on accommodation and other support for asylum-seekers, he said. Last week, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, called for the aid budget to be restored and ringfenced for overseas (News, 19 April).

Before the cuts, Lord Bruce said, the UK’s work overseas had been regarded as “world class”. But he was hopeful that the publication last year of a White Paper on international development, and the return of Andrew Mitchell MP to a ministerial role for development, would rebuild this reputation.

There was a distinction, he said, between “development” and “aid” — the former involved “trying to do things that might reduce conflict, that might reduce climate change and emergency aid. The UK must “make sure we do both”, he said.

Christian Aid has supported calls for the restoration of a separate government department for aid and development (News, 12 April), which Lord Bruce said was necessary in order to rebuild the UK’s development work.

Considering what faith-based organisations like Christian Aid and Islamic Relief should do within the aid ecosystem, Lord Bruce said: “Be yourselves . . . I’m not a very faith-based person, but by God we need you!”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who was announced last month as the incoming chair of Christian Aid (News, 28 March), told the Church Times that the importance of the collaboration between development and faith was demonstrated by the fact that Islamic Relief and Christian Aid were working together to organise the conference.

The chief executives of the two organisations, Patrick Watt and Waseem Ahmad, opened the confer­ence. Mr Ahmad said that it was important that development work “actively engages” with faith, rather than treating it as a “marginal factor”.

Lord Bruce’s address was followed by a panel dis­cussion on how faith in development is understood and implemented. A particular focus was on the interplay between organisations based in the global north and the global south.

Dr Sophia Chirongoma, who is a senior lecturer of religious studies at Midlands University, Zimbabwe, said that in parts of Africa “life is religion, and religion is life”. She highlighted the role of religious actors in South Africa in addressing the AIDS crisis, and in encouraging the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The director of research and training at Dawah Institute of Nigeria, Sheikh Nuruddeen Lemu, suggested that faith leaders and communities were vital to development work. “The government network stops somewhere . . . And there’s a huge traditional network that exists alongside the religious,” he said.

Massimiliano Sani, who is a senior advisor on social and behaviour change with UNICEF, agreed that the “influence of faith actors, especially in the global south, is undeniable”, and their cooperation is necessary in order to effect social change.

“Faith actors have been tremendous allies for us”, he said, though acknowledged that this varies between different contexts, and sometimes faith groups can be part of the problem.

Professor Emma Tomalin, a sociologist based at the University of Leeds, noted some of the critiques of such “strategic religious engagement”, for instance that it pushes the agenda of development organisations based in the global north, treating local faith actors merely as a means to an end.

Dr Chirongoma suggested that development would be more effective if actors in the global south were able to lead the process and identify the areas of need. “They’re the ones who are itching; they’ll tell you where to scratch,” she said.

Dr Vinya Ariyaratne, who is president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, agreed, and said that deeper, more sensitive partnerships between organisations in the global north and south were needed: they couldn’t be “like forced marriages”.

Bishop Mullally said afterwards that discussion of the global picture had “resonances” of the domestic situation, in which faith groups are often at the forefront of social action. “Churches at the moment are providing food banks, debt relief, and the government asked churches, and other faith groups, to be involved around the pandemic,” she said.

It was necessary for institutions to “work in partnership with faith groups, rather than just seeing them as an asset, because the faith group on the ground is often a player in the community, and therefore they know what needs to happen.”

Mr Watt said that the collaboration of Islamic Relief demonstrated a shared commitment to humanitarian values “far mor powerfully than any formal statement would”, and expressed regret that the timing of the conference — during Passover — meant that representatives from World Jewish Relief hadn’t been able to take part.

Discussions on the future shape of the development sector were important as the recent White Paper, and the potential for a change of government later this year, meant that there was an opportunity to “reset thinking” about the role of faith groups, and the intersection of local and international actors.

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