A nurse delivering a sexual health class in Nampula Province, Mozambique
A nurse delivering a sexual health class in Nampula Province, Mozambique © Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

“Development has never been just about aid or money, but I am proud that Britain is a country that keeps its promises to the poorest in the world.” So argued the then UK prime minister, David Cameron, in a 2012 speech to the United Nations General Assembly

Securing the UK’s status as a leader in international development was one of the priorities of Cameron’s 2010 coalition government. And, in 2013, the UK became the first G7 nation to achieve the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on overseas development assistance for the world’s poorest nations.

Two years later, the House of Commons enshrined within law the UK’s legal duty to adhere to this target. Successive governments have sought to reiterate their support for foreign aid. As recently as 2019, the Conservative party promised to maintain the 0.7 per cent target as part of its manifesto pledge ahead of the December general election. 

Yet less than one year later, and in the throes of a global pandemic, the Conservative government said it would be slashing the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GNI — cutting spending from around £14bn in 2020 to £10bn in 2021. 

Announcing the decision in the House of Commons in November 2020, chancellor Rishi Sunak promised that the country would return to the 0.7 per cent target once the “fiscal situation” allowed.

A Mozambican nurse inoculates babies on the outskirts of Nacala
A Mozambican nurse inoculates babies on the outskirts of Nacala © Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

Damaged relationships 

However, for those working within the aid sector, the assurances rang hollow as the severity of the foreign aid cuts became increasingly apparent.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab argued in April 2021 that the UK’s new aid priorities would focus on delivering “impact” and “value for taxpayers’ money”. As a result, funding would be allocated across seven key areas, he said, including projects supporting girls’ education and global health security.

£4bn Estimated reduction in UK government spending on overseas development aid in 2021

But non-governmental organisations working within the priority areas have said long-term projects have been hit by sweeping cuts — with potentially disastrous consequences for developing nations reeling from the pandemic.

One such example is the UN sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) which, in April this year, said that the UK had reduced funding to the organisation’s family planning programme by 85 per cent — from £154m to £23m.

The UK has historically been one of the largest contributors to foreign aid. It has long been regarded within government as part of the moral obligation of richer countries to help poorer ones — and as a means to build close bonds with developing nations.

According to the OECD, a club of mostly rich nations, in 2020 the UK was one of just six countries including Germany and Sweden to meet or exceed the 0.7 per cent target. 

Its subsequent reduction has therefore met with shock from those within the aid sector that had perceived the UK as a reliable development partner. Some have said they are beginning to doubt the UK’s international strategy.

“This is bigger than any one project being cut,” explains Abby Baldoumas, policy and advocacy manager at Bond, an organisation that represents more than 400 NGOs. “Decisions on aid are eroding trust and eroding relationships between the UK and developing countries.”

Global Britain?

The government had hoped 2021 would see post-Brexit Britain begin to assert its dominance on the global stage and strengthen ties with emerging economies.

The UK is set to host a global education summit with Kenya in ate July and in November will host COP26, the UN’s climate change summit. Last month, prime minister Boris Johnson hosted the G7 summit in Cornwall and reiterated the need for international collaboration on key issues such as recovering from the pandemic, with the UK leading the calls to vaccinate the world’s population against Covid-19 by the end of 2022.

But, despite these symbolic events, critics argue that the UK risks becoming an outlier as the only G7 country to reduce its aid commitments. Both France and the US have signalled their intention to increase foreign aid spending in the coming years.

In recent months, a growing number of Conservative backbenchers have attempted parliamentary rebellions aimed at forcing the government to reinstate the target, warning that the cuts are potentially unlawful and are damaging the UK’s international standing.

Rebels including Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, warned that in the long term such cuts could destroy the UK’s “hard won soft power reputation as a world leader on development”. 

Mitchell successfully pressed the government to bring the issue to a vote in parliament, arguing that “the government is almost certainly in breach of the law. They are breaking a manifesto commitment . . . and they are trashing a key piece of Tory DNA”.

However, the rebels lost the vote in the House of Commons this week.

Some now fear that the government’s actions have undermined the notion of “Global Britain” and sent a clear signal to the rest of the world that the UK has taken a step back, leaving a potential power vacuum.

“The aid cuts are taking place in a world that is rebalancing and shifting — with an ascendant China which is seeking to gain influence through initiatives such as vaccine diplomacy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” notes Baldoumas at Bond.

“There is a real risk that the UK stops being seen as an essential partner in the area of development because of this”.

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