What You Need To Know About The Row Over The UK's Aid Budget

Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is among those to condemn the government for cutting funding in Wednesday's Spending Review.
Malala Yousafzai has urged chancellor Rishi Sunak not to cut the overseas aid budget in Wednesday's Spending Review.
Malala Yousafzai has urged chancellor Rishi Sunak not to cut the overseas aid budget in Wednesday's Spending Review.
REUTERS/Simon Dawson and Reuters/Matthew Childs

Malala Yousafzai has joined condemnation of the government for cutting its overseas aid budget in Wednesday’s Spending Review.

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner is the latest figure to speak out against the aid cut, which was announced in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s statement.

The Spending Review set out the government’s plans for the 2020-21 financial year against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sunak announced that he would cut the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid down to 0.5% – breaking an election promise the Tories made less than a year ago.

Here’s what you need to know about the row.

What is the UK’s aid budget?

The UK, in line with an international target, had committed to spending 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid.

About a third of the money goes to multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations, while the remaining (“bilateral”) aid goes directly to programmes in developing countries.

The biggest recipients of the UK’s bilateral aid were Pakistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan, according to Full Fact.

About 15% of the aid budget goes into humanitarian aid or crisis relief, with the rest focused on strategic or long-term goals.

The 0.7% target was enshrined in law, as well as in the 2019 Tory election manifesto.

“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development, and do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient,” prime minister Boris Johnson promised last year.

In 2019, the total aid budget was £15.2bn. As a result of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, that amount was expected to shrink in line with the rest of the economy.

In July, foreign secretary Dominic Raab set out a £2.9bn package of cuts for 2020 – but remained committed to the 0.7% target.

So why is it being cut again?

Because of just how much money has been spent on coronavirus. Unveiling his Spending Review in the Commons, Sunak said: “During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people.”

The drop from 0.7% to 0.5% accounts for more than £4bn.

What’s the controversy?

Critics have argued that during a time when the public purse is under strain, money should be spent domestically rather than overseas.

The PM’s allies say the plan would save the UK billions and help the country get back on its feet after the pandemic.

It follows Johnson’s controversial decision earlier this year to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

But the aid cut had been fiercely opposed by some MPs who say it “will diminish us on the world stage”.

Development and humanitarian agencies have accused the government of trying to “balance the books on the backs of” the world’s poor, who are more in need than ever thanks to the ravages of the virus.

Others, on both sides of the political spectrum, have argued against foreign aid in principle. Some say it is a manifestation of the western “white saviour” complex towards parts of the world that we continue to oppress through unfair trading relationships. Some say it merely provides a “sticking plaster” that “smacks of arrogant neo-colonialism”, or that it does more harm than good in so-called developing countries.

Who supports cutting overseas aid?

The PM’s official spokesperson said Johnson had stressed that “the people of this country should be proud of the support we give around the world”.

“The UK is and will remain one of the biggest contributors of aid of any country,” he said.

“But, as we have said, it is important to look at where savings can be made and to ensure that aid spending is used effectively.”

Downing Street has pointed to the fact that the legislation enshrining the 0.7% target states “there may be circumstances in which the government is not able to meet the 0.7% commitment”.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick had said it would be “legitimate” to look for savings at a time when the public finances are “huge strain”.

Who opposes it?

In a letter signed by 185 charity leaders including Save The Children, Greenpeace UK, and Unicef UK, Johnson was urged to reconsider “stepping back” from the UK’s international commitments.

“Now is not the time to renege on our promise to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid and development,” they said.

“A U-turn on your manifesto commitment to maintain the 0.7% target would signal we are a nation willing to balance its books on the backs of the world’s most marginalised people, many of whom are dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on top of existing hardship.”

On Tuesday, Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai became the latest figure to speak out against the expected cut.

Former prime ministers David Cameron, John Major and Tony Blair have all publicly spoken out against the expected announcement, as has Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

“Cutting our overseas aid is morally wrong and politically unwise. It breaks our word and damages our soft power,” Major told the Times.

“Above all, it will hurt many of the poorest people in the world. I cannot and do not support it.”

Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said it would look “appalling”, especially in light of the bumper £4bn-a-year rise in defence spending announced last week.

Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative international development secretary, told Johnson last week he should heed the warning by general Mattis, the former US defence secretary, who told Donald Trump: “The more you cut aid, the more I have to spend on ammunition.”

Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary who lost out to Johnson in the 2019 Tory leadership contest, warned a cut in aid spending would send the “wrong signal out to the world about our values as a country”.

“We spent a decade wining the argument,” he said. “Even a temporary cut will create an enormous clamour of people who will say we should not go back it.”

Sarah Champion, the Labour chair of the Commons international development committee, said it was “devastating news for the poorest people in the world”.


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