It was Tony Blair’s government that originally committed the UK to donating 0.7% of its gross national income to overseas development aid. This was then put into legislation in 2015 by the David Cameron government, and both the Labour and Conservative Parties have remained committed to this spending.
As the figure is a percentage rather than an absolute monetary figure, the amount goes up or down depending on the rate of success of the UK economy. That money is spent in a wide variety of nations, many of them either former British colonies or areas of the world where Britain has been involved in security activities.
It has long been the aim of some on the right of the Conservative party to cut this funding, and they have been fairly vocal on this. With the impact of COVID, Boris Johnson’s government has downgraded overseas development aid.
This began when the Department for International Development (DFID) was merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, indicating that foreign aid was not a high priority, and would be driven by the primary concerns of the FCO. DFID had, at its heart, the easing of poverty. The FCO has, at its heart, the furthering of Britain’s interests abroad, and those two aims are very often not the same.
Then, more recently, aid funding was reduced from 0.7% to 0.5% – a cut of about £4 billion, leaving a budget of around £10 billion.
COVID has provided those who support a cut in aid with the perfect reason. To them, the crisis has meant that manifesto pledges such as the 0.7% rate can justifiably be broken. They argue that the funding reduction is temporary but opponents are suspicious that the temporary might become permanent very easily.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that the reduction in spending on aid projects can make the difference between life and death in developing nations. However, it is also true that the UK is a major aid donor, both in percentage terms and in absolute monetary terms. Other developed nations, meanwhile, have been reluctant to increase their aid funding.
The public perception is that the UK donates overseas development aid as an altruistic act. Britain is a generous nation, as it demonstrates every time there is a natural disaster. However, this is not only a very partial explanation, it is also very misleading.
Very few nations are altruistic with their money (although it could be argued that a handful might be). For the UK there are a number of self-interested motivations for aid donation, which are rarely discussed publicly. This leads certain sections of the public to view foreign aid as “charity” – something which can be both reduced and should, according to the saying, begin at home.
COVID has certainly shown us that the UK is part of a global community, but this should have been obvious before. By attempting to build democratic institutions, reduce poverty and help more girls go to and stay in school in developing nations, Britain is ensuring that global problems don’t end up on its doorstep, or more accurately, on its shoreline.
People rarely willingly leave countries where they have secure, prosperous lives. They are driven from them, either in fear of their lives or because they desire better prospects.
If foreign aid can help create such prospects in developing nations, developed nations like the UK hope that it will lead to fewer refugees and migrants, as well as the establishment of new markets that they can trade with. And by creating democratic nations, or at the very least peaceful nations, foreign aid funders like the UK can hope to see less international terrorism and less radicalism at home. Cutting funding puts those benefits at risk.
Heavy hitters turn rebel
With all this in mind, a fairly diverse group of individuals has now come together to oppose the cut to aid spending, something the Johnson government might not have expected considering how vocal the critics of the 0.7% spending target have been.
It might be expected that the Labour party would object to this cut, not least because the target is one of the positive legacies of the Blair and Brown years. However, numerous influential Tory backbenchers have objected too, many on moral grounds but also on the basis of UK self-interest.
From former prime minister Theresa May to ex-Brexit secretary David Davis. From Sir Edward Leigh, former chairman of the public accounts committee, to Andrew Mitchell, a former DFID secretary of state. These are not the traditional “bleeding hearts” that might be expected to oppose cuts to aid spending, and the Johnson government clearly believes it will be embarrassed if the issue is put to a vote, so it has simply avoided it.
So where does this leave us? The government don’t believe they need parliamentary authority to cut the aid budget, and temporarily, it probably doesn’t. However, if this cut is to become more permanent, a debate and vote cannot be avoided. The government will begin trying to bring these heavy hitters on side, and we have already seen the opening manoeuvres. Government representatives have started retroactively implying that Britain’s over-ordered vaccine donation to the developing world is part of the aid budget – suggesting that this makes up the missing 0.2%.
The foreign aid debate won’t sink Johnson. At the moment, nothing seems to be sinking Johnson. But it does add to a growing perception of the Johnson government. That perception is one linked with the cost of wallpaper, the issue of VIP lanes for Tory chums, PPE shortages and a lack of pandemic planning, changing of plans at the last minute and a general sense that it might be “one rule for us, one rule for everyone else”.
Cutting funding to the poorest people in the world is not a good look for any political party, but it is more than that. It is a surefire way to shoot yourself in the foot at a time when the need for global friends, and new trade deals, is obvious.