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Health

Despite the COVID-19 Pandemic, Britain Is Spending Less Aid on Global Health Than It Used To

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goal 3 for good health and well-being includes commitments to reduce maternal mortality, achieve universal health coverage, and end preventable deaths for children under the age of five by 2030. However, a new report into how Britain spends UK aid money to reach these objectives has found that a renewed focus is needed in these areas — or decades of progress could be undone. Join our movement here to take action on global health.

Month to month, year to year, it often seems like we’re experiencing a sort of monoculture — meaning, if often feels like there is just one big conversation, one defining issue of the day, that all other aspects of life must be perennially lived through.

Whether it’s the climate crisis, #MeToo, or Black Lives Matter, the race is always on to do as much good as possible while the spotlight is on. There’s a pressure to move the dial of progress forward, quickly, before attention shifts to the next firefight. 

And now that there has been nearly 1 million deaths and 30 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, there’s a new watchword for the zeitgeist: global health. But while focus is firmly on stopping the pandemic in its tracks, there are still questions abound. Like, how do we prevent a pandemic from happening again — and how did we even get here in the first place?

There are many answers. But the position of the UK within this context — specifically, what we have done on global health before, and what will we do in the future — has some clarity.

In a nutshell: Britain’s spending on global health through Official Development Assistance (ODA), the fancy, formal term for our UK aid budget, has significantly fallen as a share of its total over the last seven years. There was a dip from 2013-2016, and it never quite recovered.

That’s among the findings from a new report called “A Stocktake Review: Strengthening the UK’s Commitments to Global Health”, released by the Action for Global Health network, a UK-based membership network convening more than 50 organisations working on the issue.

The report warns that without urgent action from the UK government, decades of progress on global health could be undone as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It analysed contributions to global health from the UK aid budget over the last 20 years, and despite immense achievements, it found areas where improvements were immediately needed.

For example, although Britain is a world leader on health issues such as antimicrobial resistance, the report found that very little ODA spending is dedicated to supporting the training, recruitment, and retention of health workers — an absolutely vital central pillar in the fight against coronavirus. 

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And at a time when the charity sector has been reckoning with the colonial legacy in the language of aid, there is concern that very little aid goes directly to “actors” already doing the work from the low-income countries the funding is intended to serve. Instead, 93% of all finance to nonprofits from UK aid health spending either went to international charities or organisations based in donor countries in 2018.

“While we must celebrate the tremendous gains and breakthroughs that the UK has contributed to, this report indicates that it can and simply must do more,” said Prof. Mala Rao OBE, a senior clinical fellow at Imperial College London.  “As the world begins to build back from the public health crisis defining our times, it is critical that decision makers consider the risks at stake if they fail to invest sufficiently in health systems and health workers around the world.”

The authors of the report have urged the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) — the new UK department that’s the result of the controversial merger between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development — to present a public plan on global health spending.

Additional recommendations include maintaining health spending at above 0.1% of gross national income; ensuring programmes contribute to strong, resilient health systems; and insisting that a focus on ending preventable deaths is at the forefront of development strategy.

That’s after Dominic Raab, foreign secretary and FCDO head, did not list preventable deaths as among the key priorities for his department, which included the climate crisis, girls’ education, poverty reduction, and more.

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“The money we spend on health keeps children alive worldwide,” said Kevin Watkins, CEO at Save the Children UK. “Any deprioritisation of this spending would weaken health services that are already fragile and hit poor people hardest.” 

Watkins added: “The COVID-19 pandemic has left many children and their families without access to vital health and nutrition services — and the UK now has a critical part to play in making sure everyone gets the care they need, wherever they’re born.” 


Without a focus on global health, we'll never end extreme poverty by 2030. Global Citizen has been campaigning on health since we were first founded, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we've been calling on people to take action to protect the most vulnerable. Join us by signing petitions, sending emails, and tweeting world leaders here.