Chancellor proposes a cut to the level of foreign aid
On 25 November 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced in the spending review, that the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid will be reduced to 0.5%. As it is a legal commitment, it has to be voted on by parliament. He is likely to have thought that the proposal would be popular with many of his backbenchers and with the public at large. Apparently, focus groups show that this funding is unpopular and a recent YouGov survey – taken after rumours of the likelihood of the cut began to circulate and be commented on in the media – showed that 66% were in favour of the cut and this rose to 92% of Conservative supporters.
It wasn’t all plain sailing however and a number of Conservative MPs rose to criticise the proposal. Andrew Mitchell MP was interviewed on Channel 4 and on LBC, expressing his concern. He also pointed out that the aid had already been reduced this year [because of the drop in our GDP]. Baroness Sugg, a junior minister in the Foreign Office, resigned from her post.
Foreign aid is a tortured subject in British politics. There were many arguments last month, following the decision to merge the department dealing with foreign aid, DfID, into the Foreign Office precisely because it was feared that it was a precursor to cutting the aid and the commitment. The promise was in the Conservative party election manifesto:
We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development, and do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient. p53
It is easy to see where some of the hostility comes from. The tabloid press has carried out a sustained campaign against foreign aid, and the department, for a number of years. Recent examples in the Daily Mail include: ‘Foreign aid Farce (9 June 2020); Good riddance to Foreign Aid’s self-serving Department for International Narcissists’ (17 June 2020) and ‘UK could rip up rules on how foreign aid is spent so handouts serve our interests more’ (17 October 2020) [all accessed 26 November 2020]. There are many more examples and other tabloid titles have similar stories. Despite this, David Cameron as prime minister, maintained the link.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has always wanted to merge DfID with the FO and has referred to the aid as ‘a giant cash point in the sky’.
There are legitimate criticisms which have been made about the department and the management of the funds. A National Audit Office report referred to a number of failings and in particular, failure to demonstrate the effectiveness of aid programmes.
However, the ceaseless criticisms of aid are not based primarily on efficiency grounds (and NAO reports on other parts of government spending make similar points but do not invoke concerted tabloid campaigns) but on a fundamental dislike of the principle of foreign aid. Corruption is seen as a major point of concern and attitudes changed following the scandal in Haiti. A DfID research study found that 48% of people agreed with the statement ‘corruption in governments in poor countries makes it pointless donating money to help reduce poverty‘. Conversely, when images of the dead little boy Kurdi appeared in western media, attitudes became more positive. Another research study showed that concern for international poverty declined from 70% in 2011 to 46% in 2014.
Birmingham University has researched the question of attitudes to foreign aid and perhaps surprisingly, their Aid Attitudes Tracker showed little change in the period 2013 – 18. This has now changed to the Development Engagement Lab showing similar findings for more recent periods. Attitudes seem largely stable over time: people are either in favour or they are against.
It seems that there are those who think we, as one of the richest countries in the world, do have a responsibility to help the poorest in the world. As Andrew Mitchell said, the aid has helped vast numbers of women to achieve family planning and millions to have clean water. Indeed the point seems to be that the achievements of our aid are simply not recognised or sufficiently reported on. Good news stories find it hard to gain traction against a tide of disasters, wars, famines and natural disasters. Add to this, the flow of negative stories in parts of the media which portray overseas aid as wasteful, unnecessary, squandered by corrupt regimes or helping terrorists, then it is perhaps unsurprising that many people feel that we should help our own especially during the current economic crisis, the worst in three centuries.
We should play our part if only for self interest. Another concern is immigration which has had an enormous effect on the UK political landscape. By improving life and conditions in the poorest countries of the world, it will help reduce pressure on emigration. There is also a moral argument which seems to have been lost.
The decision to slash aid at a time of such great need is hugely disappointing and a bad omen of the direction of travel this Government is choosing in Foreign Affairs. Such a significant cut requires proper consideration of the human rights implications and we are concerned it has been undertaken without due consultation with those who will be affected. Any reduced aid spending must still focus on the most marginalised and the poorest. Amnesty international statement 25 November 2020