Over the bank holiday weekend, a series of media reports emerged claiming that Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was planning to raid Britain’s lifesaving UK aid budget to plug the gap in government finances, following the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right now, UK aid spending — the funding previously spent by the Department for International Development (DfID) that is used to tackle extreme poverty and its root causes worldwide — is legally protected at 0.7% of gross national income (GNI).
But there are signs that the government could potentially introduce new legislation to undo that commitment, potentially decimating a lifeline to millions of the world’s poorest people.
The Daily Mail, the Express, and the Sun all reported that sources within the Treasury believed Sunak would use the November budget to “announce the intention” to axe the budget, instead funnelling funding into military or diplomacy projects.
It’s the latest in a long line of attacks on the UK aid budget in 2020. At the start of the year, Boris Johnson promised to keep DfID independent as other departments were spending UK aid money on projects that had little or nothing to do with tackling poverty. Then in June, DfID was scrapped as an independent department anyway, as part of a controversial merger with the Foreign Office (FCO).
Removing the legal commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid would be the final nail in the coffin for the funding that has educated millions of children, removed 30 million tonnes of carbon emissions from the atmosphere, provided humanitarian assistance to 32.6 million people, contributed to the eradication of 99.9% of polio cases, and much, much more.
The rumours were published just days before the official birth of the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) — the new department created as part of the “hostile takeover” of DfID by the FCO.
And the reports were immediately met with a backlash from both Conservative and Labour MPs who were clearly shocked at the suggestion.
“Cutting the aid budget? I will not support this,” tweeted Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and former defence minister. “It's shortsighted in failing to appreciate how well targeted aid can strengthen relationships and open up new markets — thus helping the Treasury.”
“Cutting aid also fuels instability which impacts on the UK,” he added. “Let's think strategically.”
CUTTING THE AID BUDGET?— Tobias Ellwood MP (@Tobias_Ellwood) August 31, 2020
I will not support this.
It’s shortsighted in failing to appreciate how well targeted aid can strengthen relationships & open up new markets-thus helping the Treasury.
Cutting aid also fuels instability which impacts on the UK. Let’s think strategically. pic.twitter.com/I1qfwEV6kE
Yet another example of the short termism of this government. Tackling poverty in the global south is the only way to make the world fairer, safer and better. The government must not use the aid budget as a slush fund. https://t.co/JijNhlatwr— Preet Kaur Gill MP (@PreetKGillMP) August 30, 2020
Even without existential threats to the aid budget as a whole, there are fears from leading charities that the establishment of the FCDO is an excuse to slowly chip away at the UK aid funding and divert cash from the world’s poorest communities, reportedly in favour of commercial and political interests.
That’s because while DfID has been rated as one of the most transparent and effective spenders of aid in the world, the FCO has been named as one of the worst. Combining the two departments could therefore mean aid spending that is less effective, less transparent, and less focussed on reaching the most vulnerable people.
Nevertheless, DfID and the FCO have now become the FCDO. Now, the fight is on to make sure that the UK keep’s spending at least 50% of the aid budget in low-income countries, and that the UK continues to adhere to international rules on effective aid spending.
You can help achieve this goal by emailing Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary who will take charge of the FCDO from Wednesday, here.
Despite some reports to the contrary, Raab is thought to be against scrapping the 0.7% commitment to the aid budget entirely. His position in the debate may very well be pivotal to UK aid’s future.
“Whoever is suggesting this doesn’t know the mind of foreign secretary,” a senior source in Whitehall reportedly said.
An FCO source added: “We are committed to 0.7%. It is government policy and a manifesto commitment. There will be no change to that.”