The UK aid budget is the only pot of money that has the specific goal to fight the root causes of extreme poverty around the world.

It has been protected by law to be maintained at 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) since 2015. But in the midst of the pandemic last year, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the budget would be temporarily cut by billions, with the target falling to 0.5%.

And after a critical vote in parliament on Tuesday, that decision has been solidified.

Make no mistake: that seemingly tiny percentage decrease means endangering the lives of millions. Whether that’s gutting the funding to fight HIV/AIDS in low-income countries or halving aid to nations like Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis that’s been devastated by famine, the aid cuts are a brutal step backwards in the fight to end extreme poverty. 

Initially, there was some hope that there might be enough rebels within the Conservative Party to challenge the government on a vote. But Sunak played what journalist Stephen Bush described in the New Statesman Morning Call newsletter as a “very, very old parliamentary trick”: spring a vote by surprise, offer a feeble faux-compromise to give MPs an excuse to change their mind, and imply some big cabinet jobs might be coming up.

The harsh reality of the vote is that the aid cuts are now going nowhere. Despite what the government is saying, it could be many years before it returns to previous spending levels. 

Keep reading to find out exactly why this is the case.

Three things to know about UK aid cuts:

  1. The UK aid cuts could lead to at least 105,000 deaths — just from the people who would have otherwise been vaccinated against deadly preventable diseases.
  2. The cuts will amount to roughly £4 billion a year in lost funding.
  3. Critical, lifesaving projects are being cut by up to 85%.

What have people said about the cuts?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK would return to 0.7% “as soon as circumstances allow.” He argued that the principle of aid itself wasn't up for debate — and it was merely a question of when they’d reinstate aid spending “in an affordable way”, given high public spending during the pandemic. 

But former prime minister Sir John Major said that the government should be "ashamed" of a decision that’s "the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain.” He condemned its ability to find £200 million in funding for a national yacht, while "cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer called it “an indefinite cut,” while Kirsty McNeill, executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children UK, said “children will die as a result.” And Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for International Development, accused the government of “trashing our international reputation.”

“We are absolutely heartbroken by the vote to keep the devastating UK aid cuts,” said Marie Rumsby, Global Citizen’s UK Country Director. “Don’t believe what the government is saying about this being a temporary measure — this vote effectively ends the Conservatives manifesto promise to maintain the 0.7 commitment over the course of this parliament.”

“People need to hear the truth about what this decision means,” Rumsby added. “Whether it’s no longer getting meals to children trapped in famine, halting clean water projects, or decimating women’s sexual and reproductive health services, this vote will mean millions of the world’s most vulnerable people will suffer.”

What will the impact of aid cuts be?

There are so many lifesaving projects facing the chopping block that it can be difficult to predict a specific number of lives lost in total. But it could be a conservative estimate to say that it might lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have otherwise been saved.

On cuts to funding on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) alone, the United Nations (UN) has predicted between 20,000 to 30,000 deaths. For maternal health, a reproductive health charity has estimated that 23,500 women will die while pregnant, during childbirth, or from unsafe abortions. Gordon Brown, another former UK prime minister, has spoken out about the 5.6 million children who will go unvaccinated as a result, projecting at least 100,000 deaths.

Then there's the 3.8 million who could lose access to clean water, 3 million women and children who will face malnutrition, and a million girls left without an education. International development network Bond have previously predicted that humanitarian assistance will reach 2 million fewer people a year, while 7.7 million fewer women and girls will be able to access family planning.

How did the vote happen?

The government brought about the vote with just 24 hours notice.

In order to fend off opposition from within his own party, Sunak set out the economic conditions with which the government would return to the 0.7% commitment, which would happen when the government was “not borrowing for day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling." In reality, this means it is extremely unlikely that the cuts will be reversed before the next election.

In fact, one public affairs official from Save the Children said that such a condition hasn’t been met for 20 years. The government reportedly threatened tax rises and public spending cuts if it lost the vote, and successfully managed to talk down many Conservative backbenchers who were part of the coalition opposed to the cuts.

The motion passed with 333 votes to 298. 

What happens next?

Although many are arguing that the vote does not make the aid cuts legal, since aid spending was ring-fenced with legislation put forward by David Cameron in 2015, it appears extremely unlikely that the topic will be revisited in parliament in the short or medium term.

“In practice, the compromise means that the UK will not return to 0.7% this parliament,” said Ted Elgar, UK policy and advocacy manager at Global Citizen. “The next likely moments for this decision to be reversed are as part of a Conservative leadership election or when the parties come to write their next manifestos — likely 2024.”

How does it impact the mission to end extreme poverty?

The pandemic has reversed decades of progress on the Global Goals, the 17 UN objectives to end extreme poverty by 2030. In fact, it’s expected to push 150 million more people into extreme poverty by the end of the year, meaning people who live on less than $1.90 a day.

Rich countries like Britain need to do more, not less, if there’s going to be any chance of achieving these goals. Aid is one of the biggest vehicles by which it can go about that. But while France and the United States are planning to increase their aid budgets, the UK has been criticised for turning its back on the world.

You can email or tweet your MP here to urge them to do everything they can to stop aid being cut. Head here to tweet Boris Johnson directly, and share this article to get the truth out about the aid cuts.


You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

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Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

'People Need to Hear the Truth': Britain Just Voted to Keep the Aid Cuts. Here’s What That Means.

By James Hitchings-Hales