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UK government accused of ‘grotesque betrayal’ as full foreign aid cuts revealed

Exclusive: Leaks reveal plans to slash aid to world’s poorest countries. Bob Geldof brands move ‘shameful’ while Tory MPs call for Commons vote

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
5 March 2021, 5.46pm
Boris Johnson: "We’ve got our priorities right"
PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The British government has plans to slash hundreds of millions of pounds in foreign aid to countries in conflict zones around the world, openDemocracy can reveal today.

In recent weeks, senior British civil servants have discussed cutting aid to Syria by two-thirds, from £137m pledged last year to just over £45m this year, despite this week’s pledge by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to provide humanitarian assistance to the war-torn Middle Eastern state.

The figures seen by openDemocracy reveal for the first time the scale of British aid cuts.

UK aid to Libya could fall by 63% in 2021-22. Assistance to Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could fall by roughly 60%. In South Sudan, where millions face catastrophic famine, the UK's aid spend is set to drop from £110m to just £45m.

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These figures – which were discussed by senior officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) last month according to email correspondence seen by openDemocracy – included cutting British aid to Nigeria for the next financial year by 58%, and reducing assistance to the Western Balkans by 50%.

British spending in the Sahel region of Africa could also drop by more than 90%, from £340m to £23m. Aid to Lebanon could fall by 88%, although some of this shortfall will be covered by a rise in assistance from other government budgets.

Overseas Development Aid cuts graphic

Dominic Raab has frequently rebuffed calls to publish details of aid spending cuts.

openDemocracy’s figures have not been disputed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which said that the UK will “remain a world-leading aid donor”.

The cuts have sparked criticism from senior Tory and Labour MPs, and have prompted LiveAid campaigner Bob Geldof to accuse Prime Minister Boris Johnson of “a grotesque betrayal of the UK and this government’s own commitments” and of failing “some of the most hungry, terrified, hurt people of our world.

“Instead of the food and shelter and schooling and safety they were promised by Britain they will sometime later in the year have the food snatched from their mouths, the blanket removed from the tired body, the teacher sent home and the bandage unpeeled from the wound,” Geldof told openDemocracy.

“This is the brave new shiny world of Global Britain? This pinched, mean, small, sly, weak, pathetic act of self-harm that they do. Britain has many times been through harder, tougher, poorer times than this but it never retracted the hand of mercy to the helpless. What is wrong with these people? They are shameful.”

The UK’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget had been expected to fall drastically but the scale of the cuts has caused dismay amongst aid agencies, campaigners and MPs across the political spectrum.

Mohamud Mohamed Hassan, Save the Children’s country director for Somalia, said “the proposed cuts would be felt by millions of Somali children now, and for years to come”.

Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell called on the government to hold a vote on the proposed aid cuts, while Sarah Champion, Labour MP and chair of the international development select committee, accused the government of “turning its back on some of the most vulnerable people in the world”.

Earlier this week, Johnson was heavily criticised after cutting the UK’s pledged support for humanitarian aid in Yemen from £164m last year to £87m this year.

The UK’s aid budget to other war-torn regions, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also expected to fall sharply next year.

Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) spending includes governance, health, education, conflict, infrastructure, social development and humanitarian aid. At the spending review last year, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said the UK would temporarily reduce its aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income.

A significant portion of the UK’s aid spending is committed via multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, which has left direct aid to foreign states as the main source of cuts in the aid budget.

British aid spending had already fallen significantly last year as the British economy shrank during the pandemic.

Boris Johnson blamed COVID-19 for the decision to cut spending, saying it was due to the “current straitened circumstances”. He also said: “I think the people of this country will think that we’ve got our priorities right.”

In the budget this week, the FCDO – which has subsumed the Department for International Development – had its departmental budget cut from £12.7bn to £9.9bn.

But speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Dominic Raab said: “Britain is a leader in ODA, and we will remain a leader in ODA.”

Singling out British aid to Syria, the foreign secretary said: “We will continue to do it, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it makes for effective policy.”

“In Syria alone, ten years after its bloody conflict began, over 11 million people are reliant on humanitarian assistance, more than half of whom have been forced from their homes. Children in these countries need our support. Instead, the government is turning its back,” said Save the Children’s chief executive Kevin Watkins.

The target to spend 0.7% of national income on foreign aid is enshrined in law, meaning the government should bring forward a vote on reducing it, as Sunak announced last year. However, no timetable for a vote has been announced. So far the government has refused calls for a vote despite a former senior law officer branding the move “unlawful”.

Pressure from backbench Conservative MPs for a Commons vote on budget cuts has grown in recent days, with senior Tory figures saying that such a move would damage the UK’s international standing.

“The foreign secretary assured Parliament that he would protect seven strategic priorities from cuts, including humanitarian relief,” Conservative MP and former international aid minister Andrew Mitchell told openDemocracy.

“He also told the select committee he would reply to the former Solicitor General’s determination that cuts would be unlawful without a change to legislation.

“Nothing like what is being suggested here should be considered until Parliament has given its express consent, which I rather doubt will be forthcoming.”

Sarah Champion MP, chair of the House of Commons International Development Committee, said that the scale of the budget cuts being considered by government led her to “fear for the future of UK aid”.

“Reports of aid cuts to countries such as the DRC, South Sudan and Syria – among many others on the brink of humanitarian crises – are deeply concerning,” she said.

“More of the most vulnerable people in the world will go hungry; healthcare systems already under strain from a global pandemic will struggle to operate; violence and conflict will no doubt escalate.

”The government must explain the rationale for any cuts and be held accountable for the decisions it will take.”

Layla Moran MP, Lib Dem Foreign Affairs and International Development Spokesperson, said:

“For many vulnerable people around the world, the UK’s development spending has made the difference between life and death, and it stands as a testament to the best of British values. These shocking revelations are just a preview of what’s to come and tell us everything we need to know about the Government’s priorities.

“The Conservative Government’s short-sighted budget slashing not only breaks their promise to the British people and the world’s poorest, but makes a mockery of their global ambitions and our reputation on the world stage. How can we claim to be leaders when we’re cutting humanitarian aid so drastically to countries in conflict zones, undermining peace efforts and leaving people hungry?"

James Wani, Christian Aid’s country director in South Sudan, said: “Cuts on the scale being reported couldn’t come at a worse time for a country in crisis.

“Without funding for peacebuilding, the talks risk failure. And without peace, development and humanitarian work can’t succeed. People in South Sudan cannot afford for that to happen.”

A British government spokesperson said: “The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid.”

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