The price of international prosperity at home

By Joshua Bell

The British government, on behalf of the British people, is by far the most generous major nation on earth to its foreign allies, spending more on foreign aid than long term domestic social care commitments. There is no question the UK’s aid budget is generous by global comparison, and since the 1970 United Nations Resolution on foreign aid, the British government has unquestionably led from the front.

In November 2020, the Chancellor announced a cut in foreign aid to 0.5% of national income, citing the significant impact of the pandemic on the UK economy and subsequent “tough but necessary” decisions. The foreign aid budget of 0.7% is enshrined in British law, meaning any change to the policy is subject to a vote in the House of Commons. Despite the Chancellor’s commitment to a vote on the reduction, no timetable has been set and animosity amongst Tory MPs is increasingly evident.  

As Britain is in the midst of one of the worse economic crises in its history, with record levels of national debt and rising unemployment, the temporary cut to foreign aid is seen by many, as the prudent decision to defend the nation at the expense of international aid. To some, at a time of national crisis such as this, charity should begin and end at home.

Others argue the UK has a moral obligation to distribute tax-payers money internationally to further foreign policy objectives, promote trade, and support the eradication of disease, whilst lifting people out of poverty. Post-pandemic, early assessments suggest the impact of COVID-19 has worsened global poverty and set some countries back years, with strict economic lockdowns imposed in places with young populations. The case for generous foreign aid is perhaps as strong as it has ever been.

The International Growth Centre (ICC) reported in summer 2020 ‘an additional 9.1% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa have immediately fallen into extreme poverty as a result of COVID-19.’  It is evident that the UK government’s foreign aid cut has come at a time of both national and international economic hardship. Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore the seemingly obvious contradiction between the UK government’s bold ambition of a ‘Global Britain’ and its albeit temporary reduction in foreign aid.  For many crossbench MPs, the concern is not only the direct impact foreign aid policy will have on vulnerable people around the world, it is the perception of trust, or lack of in this case.

Moral arguments aside, within parliament a row is brewing and pressure intensifying on the UK government. Adding to pressure on lockdown timelines and NHS staff pay rises, is the very public animosity amongst some backbenchers related to the cut in foreign aid. As Conservative Andrew Mitchell MP has forcefully argued, the reduction is a “strategic mistake with deadly consequences.” As the humanitarian crisis in Yemen worsens, the decision will be subject to intense scrutiny over the coming weeks and delaying a vote on the matter, without question, will become increasingly unavoidable for the government.