The Guardian view on foreign aid cuts: conservatism without compassion | Editorial

Boris Johnson does not share the liberal belief in progress. “I think that history – societies and civilizations and nations – can rise and fall, and I think that things can go backwards,” he said recently in an interview for The Atlantic, an American magazine. There could be few neater demonstrations of this acceptance of historical regression than the government’s decision to cut the UK’s aid budget by £4bn, which dominated the news just hours after the article was published.

To those who believe the aim of politics must be a brighter and more stable future, in which poverty has been eliminated and the risks of runaway global heating contained, the UK’s promise to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid is a powerful symbol. It signals recognition of the obligations of rich nations and people to poorer ones, and a commitment to global cooperation. These ideas are widely shared, for reasons that range from a progressive internationalism to a belief that British “soft power” is part of its role as a former imperial power.

This consensus helps explain why Britain has long punched above its weight in the aid world, and why a failed effort to force a vote on the plan in the House of Commons on Monday was backed by a sizeable group of Conservatives. John Major described the cuts as immoral. Tory MP David Davis warned that they would “kill people”. Gordon Brown, correctly, links the cuts with the lack of a plan to vaccinate the world, pointing out that rich countries are risking the health of their own populations as well as people in poor countries. The former prime minister aims to convince this weekend’s G7 meeting to fund a two-year, $60bn healthcare support package.

Details of the proposed cuts are shocking. The UK’s spending on Yemen, devastated by years of fighting, will fall by 56% from £197m to £87m; in Syria, a cut of 49% will reduce the budget from £400m to £205m. Elsewhere, sexual and public health programmes are among those that will end.

The indirect effects are just as worrying. The audience that ministers are focused on is understood to be domestic: the popularity of the cuts among Conservative voters is one reason why Mr Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are determined to press ahead. Never mind that the 0.7% figure was in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and has been the law since 2015. The pandemic has created what Mr Sunak described as a “domestic fiscal emergency”. In such circumstances, the £15bn foreign aid budget was difficult to justify, he said.

But as with all foreign policy, the domestic audience is not the only one watching. There are international observers too: politicians and agencies in the affected countries, obviously, but also other donors. The fear is that they could be influenced by the UK, which has previously been regarded as a leader, particular in the areas of girls’ education and women’s reproductive rights.

On Monday, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, ruled out an amendment from the former Tory development secretary Andrew Mitchell. MPs should seize their chance in Tuesday’s debate to voice their misgivings.

Slashing the aid budget in the middle of a pandemic that has sent decades of poverty reduction programmes into reverse is wrong. For the UK to deliver such a blow, in advance of the G7 talks and November’s climate conference, is perverse. Global security, in the face of a growing climate threat, can only be secured by rich and poor countries working together. Instead of levelling down its aid spending the UK should, as Mr Brown is doing, urge others to level up.


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