Almost 200 humanitarian and development charities and organisations have written to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday, urging him not to cut the aid budget amid the global fallout of COVID-19.
The letter calls on the PM to uphold the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on aid, following rumours that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is looking to cut the budget to 0.5% of GNI, which could be announced in Wednesday’s spending review.
A story emerged in the Times on Tuesday claiming that Sunak is looking to cut the aid budget to help reduce public spending costs, which have soared this year as the government has increased domestic spending to respond to the pandemic.
The aid budget, also known as overseas development assistance, is mainly spent by the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) and has already fallen by £2.9 billion this year — in line with the UK’s shrinking economy.
A further cut would see yet more funding disappear from life-saving projects set up to support the most vulnerable people in the world — which are particularly vital right now, given the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter — signed by Marie Rumbsy, the UK country director of Global Citizen, along with a further 180 directors and chief executives of UK nonprofits — argues that while times are challenging, now is not the time to make drastic cuts that will impact the world’s poorest.
In fact, when it comes to the issue of diseases spreading worldwide, like COVID-19, cutting aid now could weaken health systems and undermine the world’s ability to respond to pandemics.
“We understand the challenges and difficulties the UK public faces,” the letter states. “COVID-19 has cost more than a million lives and strained economies around the world, including the UK.”
“However, at a time when 115 million people look set to be pushed back into extreme poverty, now is the time for an international, collaborative response to COVID-19, as set out in your speech at the UN General Assembly,” the letter continues, referring to Johnson’s speech to the UN in September.
The signatories point out the UK has credibility as a “development superpower”, as a result of funding effective and good value for money projects that promote stability and poverty reduction around the world.
Britain now has a crucial role to play in “strengthening health systems globally”, the letter says, that will ultimately help protect everyone in the face of pandemics.
“Stepping back from our international commitments is not the solution and risks damaging the UK’s standing globally as we define our role in the world post-Brexit,” the letter continues.
Such an outcome would, “signal we are a nation willing to balance its books on the backs of the world’s most marginalised people, many of whom are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on top of existing hardship,” it concludes.
Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children, said in a statement accompanying the letter that next year, as the UK hosts the United Nations annual climate summit COP26, and the G7 summit, it has an opportunity to “lead the international response” to these crises, an opportunity that could be lost.
“We are facing the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation alongside a global climate crisis,” Watkins said. “The UK faces real financial challenges; but cutting aid would do huge harm to the world’s vulnerable people while making little difference to the government’s budget overall.”
“The prime minister should step up and show voters that a Global Britain is one that keeps its promises to people and the planet,” he added.
The letter has been covered by much of the UK media this Friday, across print and broadcast.
It echoes concerns raised by politicians in both the Conservative and opposition parties.
Jeremy Hunt, a backbench Conservative MP and former health secretary, has expressed concern that cutting aid at this point in time would “diminish Britain’s role in the world” and said on Twitter that keeping aid spending “spoke to our values as a compassionate country”.
The leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer asked the prime minister in parliament this week how a new announcement of extra spending on defence would be paid for, and whether the government would honour the commitment in its manifesto to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.
“He must know that if he breaks it [the manifesto pledge], that will not only undermine public trust, but hugely weaken us on the global stage,” Starmer said.
Johnson said on Thursday that the newly-announced plan to spend an additional £16.5 billion over four years on defence did not come from the overseas aid budget, the Financial Times reported.
You can take action here to lend your voice to the efforts to stop the UK government slashing our life-saving aid budget.