The cruellest cut

Malnourished children in Ethiopia, image credit: Cate Turton/Department for International Development  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

When even Theresa May, the person responsible for the Windrush scandal and the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy, thinks your foreign policy agenda is inhumane, it should give you pause for thought.

“Fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die” was how Theresa May yesterday described the effects of cutting our foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5%.

But despite this warning from their former leader, yesterday the majority of Conservative MPs voted to break their election promise and reduce foreign aid by £4 billion pounds. To her credit, Mrs May was not one of them, voting against a three-line whip from her party for the first time in her long parliamentary career.

Make no mistake: not only will this cut hurt some of the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people during a pandemic, it will also damage scientific jobs and research funding right here in the UK. Decades of research will be affected.

If the Conservative MPs who claim we cannot afford to meet our foreign aid commitments genuinely wanted to save taxpayer’s money, they would call out the corruption and cronyism from their own government ministers.

Conveniently, they don’t explain that our foreign aid budget helps fund polio eradication programmes, the manufacturing of prosthetic limbs for landmine victims, UN refugee camps and UK science jobs.

The most pressing challenges we face as a civilisation are truly global in nature – climate change, the growing resistance of bacteria to our antibiotics, how to manage and feed our fast-growing population, and fighting pandemics.

All these issues directly affect the UK. None can be addressed by any country working alone. And much of the UK foreign aid budget is focused on tackling precisely these challenges.

Some of this money funds British scientists carrying out research into infectious diseases in developing countries. Diseases such as rabies, polio and avian influenza all have the potential to affect the UK.

The cuts to our foreign aid budget will mean some UK scientists losing their funding and potentially their jobs. Ground-breaking research projects which were awarded money some months ago have already had their funding retracted, bringing them to a sudden halt. At the University of Oxford, a world-leading team that focuses on identifying and tracking new Covid-19 variants in Brazil and other countries has been informed that most of its funding is to be withdrawn. There is no doubt that this will cost lives.

Some mean-spirited Conservative MPs have long banged on about reducing foreign aid, perhaps because they were too ignorant to understand the consequences of their actions, or perhaps because – like the refugee crisis – this presented them with an easy opportunity to whip up resentment and xenophobia.

They peddle the false narrative that the choice we are faced with is either tax rises or foreign aid. A line that rings especially hollow given the £39 billion that has been wasted on an ineffective test and trace system (much of this on contracts awarded to cronies of government ministers without any proper procurement process). In comparison, our total annual foreign aid budget was a mere £15 billion, and is now being cut to £11 billion.

The other spurious argument was that we must reduce foreign aid this year due to the hit our economy has taken from the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. This ignores the fact that our foreign aid budget is (or was) set at 0.7 per cent of the UK’s GDP. So when our economy shrinks, or if we enter a recession, the actual amount we spend on foreign aid is automatically reduced anyway.

Many of these MPs have campaigned hard on reducing immigration and stopping refugees and asylum seekers from entering the UK. The best way to do that is to improve the health, education and security of those living in the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries. If people feel safe, are healthy, have educational prospects and are not in fear for their lives, they won’t risk dangerous journeys to escape to Europe and the UK. And these are exactly the benefits that our foreign aid budget aims to achieve.

There are still a few remaining Conservative MPs with an understanding of international affairs who actually care about keeping manifesto pledges. As former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell pointed out in April: “Brexit was supposed to be about enhancing the power of parliament, not ignoring its will on a matter where every single one of us was elected just over a year ago on a firm and clear promise to stand by our commitments to the poorest.”

Mr Mitchell is rightly horrified at the inevitable consequences of the cuts, explaining that, in a countries such as Yemen, they will mean that very large numbers of people, including many children, will now face the “slow, agonising and obscene process of starving to death”.

The heads of 17 aid agencies, green groups and think-tanks have also criticised the government for breaking its promise in the strongest possible terms, saying the planned cut will fail the poorest countries who are “at the frontline of a climate crisis they did not cause”.

Instead of cutting aid, they wrote: “The UK should use its G7 and COP26 presidencies in 2021 to lead an international economic response for a sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery, which means honouring existing aid and climate finance commitments, and raising ambition. The UK cannot afford to fail. World leaders will look to COP26 to understand ‘global Britain’s’ values and place in the world.”

The middle of a pandemic is the worst possible time to implement cuts to the world’s poorest people. If this government was going to keep just one of its election promises, it’s a shame it wasn’t this one.