openDemocracyUK: Opinion

There are no winners of the UK government’s cuts to international aid

Those in the Global South will suffer – and UK taxpayers will have to deal with the consequences in years to come

Sarah Champion
19 March 2021, 7.24am
Despite Boris Johnson's claims, the cuts will barely make a dent in reducing UK debt
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

When I first read openDemocracy’s report highlighting the extent of the government’s cuts to UK aid spending around the world, I was shocked by their scale, but not surprised.

The cuts are symptomatic of a government that fails to grasp the transformative impact that aid can have on the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world, and the benefits that it can deliver for taxpayers in the UK. Just a quick skim of the Integrated Review, which sets out the national security and international policy objectives to 2025, tells you all you need to know about how much importance this government attaches to development. The approach to aid spending is covered in just a handful of paragraphs. It almost feels as though the government forgot that the word ‘development’ is in the full title of the review: ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’.

When I asked the prime minister, Boris Johnson, about the sheer size of the cuts, he told me they were necessary because of the cost of dealing with the pandemic in the UK. But let’s put this into context. The government has said that the UK will spend £10bn on official development assistance in 2021, equivalent to 0.5% of gross national income. Increasing this to 0.7% – the amount that the UK should legally be spending on aid each year – would provide an additional £4bn. In contrast, the government plans to exceed our 2% contribution to NATO.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that government borrowing for the 2020-21 financial year amounts to £355bn – so that extra £4bn equates to around 1% of the UK’s borrowing. That figure is unlikely to make even the smallest dent in reducing the nation’s debt and yet would provide life-changing sums of money for people living in the poorest countries around the world.

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The cuts are unlikely to make even the smallest dent in reducing the UK's debt and yet would be life-changing for people in the poorest countries

With such a tight squeeze on the aid budget, careful consideration of our spending is a must. The introduction of the government’s new aid strategy in 2022 means that the three-page letter I received from the foreign secretary last autumn is the most comprehensive guide available to signal the UK’s priorities for aid.

This is just not good enough – we need a clear strategy that maps out the core principles of UK aid, to ensure we have a joined-up, gender- and conflict-sensitive approach to spending. This must guarantee that each programme adds value to our overall development offering and works towards creating a fairer, more peaceful and more stable world. Anything else is like going to the supermarket without a shopping list – you might buy lots of good individual ingredients, but they won’t necessarily combine to make a meal.

On top of the lack of strategy, I’m alarmed at the speed with which decisions on the cuts are being taken. Rash calls to abruptly stop programmes, made without anyone having time to consider the implications, will come back to haunt us. Cutting crucial programmes – such as those in South Sudan and the Sahel highlighted in openDemocracy’s reporting – not only risks undoing the good work that UK aid has funded, but also abandoning these communities at a time of ever greater need.

While children in Yemen continue to die, the UK continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia

The government does not appear to have undertaken any consultation of delivery partners about these cuts, nor undertaken any impact assessments. It certainly hasn’t publicly published any information about the scale of the cuts. To say this is worrying for organisations administering aid is an understatement; it’s potentially ruinous to their ability to continue to perform crucial work.

In Yemen, reducing humanitarian support means less food for the hungry, fewer medicines, less work to engage communities in finding a solution to conflict. And while children continue to die, we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.

How does any of this work in the interests of the communities who receive aid or indeed, the UK taxpayer?

Withdrawing UK support will create vacuums that others, who do not share UK values, will inevitably fill. They will not prioritise the poorest and most marginalised, or ensure that women and girls are treated fairly. Instead we risk a spread of debt-trap diplomacy from China – as we have seen in Sri Lanka and across Africa – and a frightening rise in the actions of insurgents, like the recent horrendous reports from Mozambique. And in our globalised world, these security threats won’t just stay in the Global South, they will foster problems that will end up on our doorstep, be it extremism, crime or global health threats.

Ultimately, it’s the people behind the numbers that matter – the families that won’t get food, the women who won’t be protected against violence, the children who won’t receive vaccines. For years to come, the UK taxpayer will be footing the bill for this government’s mistakes, but the true price will be paid by the poorest in the world, who won’t be alive to see the consequences of this government’s choices.


Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Committee

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