In response to the global pandemic, international aid contributions from the thirty member states of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee has gone up by 7% in absolute terms compared to 2019. The USA, Canada, France and Germany are among the countries to increase aid.
Sadly, the UK is not one of them. Instead Dominic Raab, our foreign secretary, announced last July a £2.9 billion cut to the UK’s aid commitment.
The government also announced the aid budget will be cut to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) in view of the pandemic – even though 0.7% is enshrined in law. That hit is a double whammy: with a reduced GNI, the aid budget will be reduced, and with a reduced share, it will shrink even more.
In absolute terms, Britain’s aid budget will shrink from £14.5 billion in 2020 to £10 billion in 2021. The government has been keen to point out that the UK is still the third largest donor in absolute terms, however the real question is whether rolling back on our legal commitments is right – in both rationale and timing – when developing countries are finding it hard to cope with coronavirus.
“This move has been criticised by four former prime ministers, the UN secretary general, leading philanthropists like Bill Gates, and even prominent Conservatives,”
2021 is a key year for Britain in the international development calendar. Alongside Kenya we are co-hosting the Global Partnership for Education, we host the G7 in June, and the landmark COP26 climate summit in November. This should have been the year to propel a new, post-Brexit Britain to a more prominent role on the global stage. Instead, official aid is being pivoted away from poverty reduction to areas of “national interests” and “national security”.
The recently formed Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office – which came to life last summer when the Department for International Development was merged into the Foreign Office – manages only a little over 70% of the reduced aid budget, with diplomatic and security interests playing a more pivotal role in determining how our official development assistance (ODA) budgets are allocated. Meanwhile, more funding has been made available for nuclear weapons.
In a pandemic-ravaged world, we need visionary leadership. This is absolutely the wrong time for Britain to choose to recede from its leadership role.
It is no wonder then, that this move has been criticised by four former prime ministers, the UN secretary general, leading philanthropists like Bill Gates, and even prominent Conservatives such as Andrew Mitchell, Rory Stewart and Baroness Sugg.
For us at STiR Education, working in partnership with education systems in India and Uganda to embed the foundations of lifelong learning, the impact has been devastating. On 2 March, we were given just three weeks’ notice that our contract with FCDO would be cancelled due to budget cuts – a loss of £828,000 over the period April 2021 to June 2022. Worse still, we were given this information by phone call, with no rationale or apology, and asked not to discuss it publicly, even with our counterparts in the Ugandan government.
Keeping silent is however not an option and we need to speak out on something that is legally and ethically wrong. This cut risks our primary education programme in Uganda, where over the past four years we have been working with 3,500 schools, 46,000 teachers and nearly two million children. We have had to significantly scale back our programme, with major cost savings and some staff redundancies. This means children from poor and marginalised families being further disadvantaged from accessing quality education and opportunities for life.
We consider ourselves to be very fortunate to have support from private donors, without whom this work could not continue at all. The prime minister continues to profess his personal commitment to girls’ education, yet his government is cutting funding to a programme that reaches nearly a million girls from some of the poorest communities in Uganda.
“A country with over £2 trillion GDP should have been more generous, not less.”
We are not the only ones affected. Cuts to the FCDO will fall sharply on some of the poorest countries, especially in Africa, and some of the worst affected by conflict: Yemen, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan. Details of the cuts are not yet made public, so it is only now that recipients of the aid budget are starting to find out what awaits them.
We are struggling, and we know that others will too. More aid is likely to be pivoted to promote Britain’s interest on trade and security. We will see a hugely reduced role for Britain on the global development stage, even as the world struggles to meet its commitments to the SDG 2030 targets.
We don’t know if or when Britain will restore its 0.7% GNI commitment. Boris Johnson has said that it will happen when the fiscal situation allows, but that commitment means nothing without a specific timeline. And that means that millions of people most in need around the world will face the devastating impact of a government decision to cut £4.5 billion from the aid budget.
A country with over £2 trillion GDP should have been more generous, not less. To do anything else is to balance our books on the backs of the poor.
Girish Menon is chief executive of STiR Education. Follow him on Twitter at @GirishMenonSTiR