Reflection: Deep cuts to international aid in the UK shame us all

In 2005 at Gleneagles the G8’s European members, led by Tony Blair, decided to sign up to the UN development aid target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI). David Cameron later turned this pledge into a commitment in UK law. Johnson presides at the G7 June meeting this year with a reduced UK aid target of 0.5% of GNI. These cuts are particularly damaging in the midst of a pandemic.

Three figures give some idea of the magnitude of the global COVID problem. Sierra Leone where I worked with Muslim and Christian leaders in a national malaria education programme that reached five million – with pregnant women and under-fives most at risk – has vaccinated eight out of every thousand people. In oil-rich Nigeria with a population of around 200 million the figure is nine per thousand. In Malawi, which incidentally had the largest Department for International Development (DfiD) office I’ve come across in Africa, it’s 17.5 per thousand. These figures almost guarantee new and more dangerous mutations, which won’t stay in Africa.

Despite the government’s expressed preference to ‘cut once, cut deep’ there have been two very deep cuts in our former £14 billion aid budget. According to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (that reports to the All-Party International Development Committee) last year there was an actual cut of £2.94 billion based on an overestimate of the amount GNI had fallen. There followed this year a further cut of £4 billion, apparently at the insistence of the Treasury. The very poorest countries are hit hardest by these sudden unprepared for cuts.

Andrew Rawnsley in the Sunday’s The Observer (23 May) quotes a former Cabinet member describing the reduction in funding as nothing to do with economics and ‘utterly cynical’. “It’s because they think aid cuts go down well in the red wall seats,” he said. There may be some truth in that claim but, hamstrung by vast Trident costs and by ring-fenced departmental budgets, there was also fear that not being able to increase the Defence budget would alienate Conservative voters.  And on the Tory back-benches there is a strong ‘charity begins at home…and ends there’ faction, long hostile to DfID, who applauded its absorption into the Foreign Office.

Insufficient time and thought have been given to which beneficiaries, countries and categories of programmes would face reductions, and their consequences. From March to December 2020, £1.39 billion of British aid was spent on anti-COVID measures around the world. You might have thought that in the midst of a pandemic funding for the rest of the health sector in the poorest countries would be carefully protected.  But the cuts hastily introduced this year damage programmes against malaria, polio and HIV and, most importantly, will affect public health systems which prevent and control disease, including COVID.

The Victorians were smart enough to work out that parsimony and indifference to the health of poorer people was a bad idea. Cholera and other infectious diseases they realised jumped class barriers and borders. This simple observation applied globally does not seem to have fully penetrated the Johnson government’s policy though, characteristically, Gordon Brown has made it crystal clear.

 

Providing COVID equipment, PPE’s, oxygen, ICUs and so on will make only a marginal difference if the recipients in a local health system are badly organised, corruptly managed or even barely functioning. And here is the Achilles heel of government-to-government funding providing good copy for the right-wing press and clearing the consciences of voters who support cuts in aid. If the government clinic is not properly funded, the nurses and doctors poorly trained or doing two jobs, and the clinic has no drugs or equipment that works, it is to little avail. Corruption and poor governance kills. Sensitive interventions in the management of ministries can and do make a difference and must continue.

In an ideal world, the comparative advantage of governmental aid interventions generally is scale.  Immunisation for example must reach whole populations as we all know from our recent experience of Covid. There are, of course, large NGOs such as OXFAM which can manage significant humanitarian programmes by providing clean water and similarly Save the Children for education.  The British government has pathways to those in need via such relevant NGOs that bypass corrupt governments.

Our government is also more covertly dipping into development aid spending for services provided by other Departments of State.  While COVAX spending is appropriately taken from the aid budget spending on peacekeeping should come out of the defence budget and for climate change out of Business and Energy – not out of development aid.  And all such assistance in our interconnected world should be considered as a security measure if the term is to have much meaning. FCO/DfiD needs to learn from the COVID pandemic and focus on funding for health and education. This year’s cut of £4 billion should be reversed immediately.

Health and education are not only pivotal for a country’s future they are unifying concerns shared by every parent irrespective of faith, ethnicity or nationality. Non-Governmental organisations (NGOs), local and international, do wonderful work. In Sierra Leone I have watched a Pentecostal pastor and an Imam together teaching parents about bed nets, mosquitoes and standing water, then going back to their communities to bring health education into their sermons.  

Meanwhile, there are no more influential health visitors than respected elder village women chatting to mothers at bath-time, bringing health messages for the under-fives into the conversation. I have watched illiterate women being trained to recognise symptoms of a score of major diseases in Mali so they can send those who need to go to the nearest clinic for treatment.  These are the sort of small-scale things NGOs do well and they can often be scaled up in support of health Ministries where the potential for national action lies.

As our Government Ministers sit round the Cabinet table or claim improbably to camera that cuts to health programmes are temporary, I wish they could be transported to the places where the cuts fall to meet grass roots workers and explain why our rich country can’t help them. The £4 billion cut this year is about 1% of what Mr. Sunak has been spending on dealing with the multiple impacts of COVID in UK. Andrew Mitchell, former Secretary of State for International Development, knows what a shameful, short-sighted and damaging step the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are taking. MPs who think like Mitchell should stand up and, like him, be counted.

(Ian Linden, a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, London)