world

UK aid cut seen as unforced error in ‘year of British leadership’


Boris Johnson is said to be having “queasy second thoughts” about a long-term cut to the UK aid programme, faced both by the surprising unpopularity of the measure with his own backbenchers and the fact that most other G7 countries will come to the British-hosted summit in June increasing theirs – in the process endangering the UK status as a soft power superpower.

The official government line remains not to look at the falls in aid spending but the size of the budget as a proportion of gross national income, which is still in excess of most G7 countries. The reduced £10bn budget still puts the UK third in the aid spending league table and if anyone has doubts about the UK’s soft power status, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, likes to cite an Ipsos Mori poll finding for the British Council in 2020 that found the UK was the most attractive country in the G20.

But diplomats are starting to talk of a reckoning as the impact of the cuts filters down to the ground in the Middle East and some of Africa’s poorest countries. “Now when resources are needed the most, in the middle of a pandemic, it feels like a gut punch,” said Chernor Bah, co-founder and co-CEO of Purposeful in Sierra Leone. “The timing of this is terrible not just because of the G7 and pandemic. It will means thousands of girls will not have access to life-saving sexual reproductive facilities. It undercuts the UK’s moral authority. These are political cuts.”

The reaction is also unsettling some MPs who, faced by increasingly voluble aid agencies, fear the government has made an unforced error in what has been billed by the prime minister himself as “a year of British leadership”. Asked if it was true, as UK diplomats claim, that the cuts were having no impact on British influence, one UN official replied succinctly: “Bollocks. Everyone can see the difference between their rhetoric and the reality.”

In the context of 60% UK aid cuts to food-insecure Yemen, Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Yemen, asked: “How can the UK’s famine special envoy, Nick Dyer, go to the G7 meeting in May to get resources for a famine compact and early prevention, and yet be seen as a credible voice?”

One senior UN official said: “You cannot go round with the begging bowl when you are emptying it.”

What may make ministers especially nervous is that by putting faith in hard, as opposed to soft, power, the UK is out of step with trend.

Elsewhere, aid funding is rising. Recently-released OECD preliminary statistics for 2020 show overseas development assistance spending rising by 3.5% in real terms compared with 2019, reaching its highest level ever recorded. Spending in France rose by 11%, in Germany by 13.7%, in Japan by 1.2%, in the US by 5%. The country with the largest drop apart from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was the UK.

And while the UK will continue cutting aid through 2021, Joe Biden announced this monthan increase of $5.4bn (£3.9bn) or 10% for USAid, the US government’s international development agency.

Displaced Yemenis receive food aid donated by a British organisation in Yemen’s western province of Hodeida.
Displaced Yemenis receive food aid donated by a British organisation in Yemen’s western province of Hodeida. Photograph: Khaled Ziad/AFP/Getty Images

USAid and the state department have together budgeted about $2bn on programmes to foster democracy, human rights and open governance abroad in the 2021 fiscal year. The UK has by contrast cut its human rights programme – at the same time as it brands itself as “a force for good”.

Some Conservatives have also noticed Joe Biden’s appointment of the high-profile Samantha Power, who sees aid as a vital tool in the influence battle with China in Africa, to run USAid and her allocation of a seat on the US National Security Council. Senior UN officials say they have already heard her officials making her views known in private about the UK aid cut in the middle of a pandemic.

Similarly, John Kerry, Biden’s big hitter climate envoy, looks to be using America’s unique convening power at a two-day Earth Summit this week to bring India, China and Russia together on carbon emissions. The UK, in the view of Lord Ricketts, the former national security adviser, risks being consigned to a modest understudy role consensus building and providing the venue and food for a slimmed-down Cop26 in November.

All this at a time when, as the former ambassador to Washington Sir Peter Westmacott says, the UK needs to work that much harder from outside the EU to show its relevance to the US.

The near-universal view is that Johnson could have got away with a fall in the absolute size of the aid programme in 2020 due to the contraction in the size of the Covid-ravaged British economy, but there was no need to take the chancellor’s advice and impose a further cut in 2021 by reducing the statutory aid target from 0.7% to 0.5%. “All governments makes mistakes,” says the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, “but I have rarely seen such a colossal act of self-harm as by this government. For 1% of the cost of Covid borrowing they are systematically dismantling one of the great acknowledged assets of soft power and British leadership in the world – not just by making these cuts but undermining the British international development leadership of British universities, thinktanks and policymakers.”

Cutting aid spending by a further £4bn in 2021 will, after all, make a negligible difference either to short-run borrowing or to the nation’s debt, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The UK is, in the words of the IFS director, Paul Johnson, “a million miles away” from balancing the budget. Given the symbolic importance of the £4bn cut, the money looks trifling when the Treasury provided £250bn of additional support in response to the pandemic in 2020–21, plus £94bn in the current year.

A legitimate counter Treasury view is that cuts have to start somewhere. The IFS itself points out that plans pencilled in to the 2021 budget imply that with aid spending at 0.5% of national income, and without tax increases, unprotected departments could face a 3.1% real-terms cut in day-to-day spending from 2021–22 to 2022–23. If aid spending returns to 0.7% of national income, this figure rises to 5.4%. That suggests the return to 0.7%, currently due to happen “when the fiscal situation allows”, may be further away than some think unless Johnson acts.

The Treasury hates ringfenced budgets in principle, and had seen the size of the aid budget through the Osborne austerity years as an anomaly. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, argued there was a limit to how far other departments could game the system to access the swollen aid budget.

But the aid cuts reveal something deeper than the reassertion of Treasury orthodoxies. The £4bn cut in the aid budget is almost perfectly matched by the extra £4.4bn for defence in 2021-22. As choices go, this could not have been a clearer endorsement of traditional hard power over Joseph Nye’s soft power.

The UK’s recent integrated review on defence and foreign policy has been widely praised as a confident piece of work, but due to the disintegrated way in which it was written – with the key spending announcements preceding publication – development lost its voice at the table.

Laurie Lee, chief executive of CARE International UK and an adviser in the last Labour government, points out the scant mention development gets in the document. “Poverty is only mentioned on 14 pages. Gender equality is referred to literally once in 50,000 words. Whereas security is mentioned 351 times in the 120 pages,” he said.

It was the Royal Navy along with cyber warfare that won the battle of the review, with the UK’s stated aim to boast the largest navy in Europe. According to Malcolm Chalmers, analyst at the defence thinktank Rusi, MoD capital spending is due to rise by 50% over the next two years, “the most rapid increase since the Korean war and probably the steepest ever such increase in peacetime”.

Lee argues the aid cuts also show the incoherence between foreign, defence, security and development policy. “Defence, conflict and security experts are clear that development assistance is a more effective and cheaper way of preventing conflict than military spending,” he said. “Yet the government is cutting aid to increase defence spending.”

Mitchell agrees: “The wiring system in Downing Street seems to have gone seriously awry. Sending troops to Mali but at the same time slashing our humanitarian and development aid to the region is simply a failure of leadership.”

Andrew Mitchell
Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, said: ‘Sending troops to Mali but at the same time slashing our humanitarian and development aid to the region is simply a failure of leadership.’ Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA

Rory Stewart, the former International development secretary, and often the most sophisticated analyst of the British foreign policy scene, claimed Johnson’s motives were disarmingly simple. “It is a very popular choice – that is the most important thing to remember,” he says.

“So many of the Brexit voters, so many people in my constituency, on the right of the Conservative party hated the idea of international aid. They did not like the idea of giving British taxpayers’ money to the poor people in other countries, so whatever it is dressed up as being, it is hugely popular with that chunk of the party. The prime minister is very aware of that. He might pretend this is something driven by Covid or some new bit of foreign policy, but he is basically appealing to a voter group that does not want to spend too much money on overseas aid.”

It is also in keeping with how past Conservative governments, with the exception of David Cameron, have behaved.

Not just to shed the “nasty party” image, although that played a part, David Cameron and Mitchell from 2010 took development seriously, making the moral, national security and soft power case for spending.

Cameron literally came of age in the Live Aid era sharing his 18th birthday with Bob Geldof’s 16-hour transatlantic marathon. It was the one area in which he did not run scared of the Daily Mail, almost glorying in the paper’s criticism at G7 summits. In his autobiography, he did not repent instead saying “the irony is that the people who complain most about our waning influence are the same ones that complain about our development budget. They do not seem to appreciate that our aid commitment gives soft power like nothing else”.

As a result in 2015 just after the election the Brookings Institution wrote a piece saying the British 0.7% commitment was now a unique and permanent feature of the British political landscape and the subject of cross-party consensus. “The UK has changed,” the piece concluded. “It has become more diverse and more inclusive. It is emerging from the uncertainties and hang-ups of the post-colonial, postwar era. It is adjusting to the necessity of soft power and the potential advantages in terms of diplomacy, trade and security.”

Stewart argues this entrenchment of aid as part of the British consensus was always a chimera. When Johnson proposed the cut to 0.5%, Stewart admits “there would have been a hope from people like me that all the arguments would spring up and we would be able to mount a strong defence, but in fact the whole thing folded much more quickly than you might expect. We built this edifice assuming it would last and found this whole thing can be changed in a matter of weeks and no one would notice.”

He attributes the fragility in part to UK foreign policy, as in America, becoming the preserve of elites. Stewart concludes: “International development has become over 30 years a very different field from diplomacy. The only thing they have in common is they both involve working abroad.” DfID, he said, had been staffed with development economists who were “very reluctant to get into a conversation with the public”.

Stewart’s judgment that the defence of the 0.7% has crumbled is not one universally shared. “Charity begins at home,” was an easier sell at the outset of the pandemic when the UK cuts to aid were agreed, but Covid’s continuing rampage worldwide has shown recovery in one country, like socialism in one country, does not work.

As a result there is an impasse between government and rebels. Opponents of the cut claim to have the numbers to win a vote, but ministers, fearing defeat, refuse to call one, and the rebels have not yet found a alternative legislative vehicle.

But the government is probably suffering more damage than anticipated. This has been compounded by the secretive and drawn-out way in which ministers, bereft of an overarching theory of development, have identified how to cut the aid budget by a third over two years. In-country diplomats, waiting for word from London, have been unable to provide reassurance to charities about which health centres will need to close. Leaks, and individual announcements, such as cuts in Syria and Yemen, have left charities to fear the worst, put programmes on hold, lay staff off, and campaign.

Raab says the delay was necessary to go through a rigorous analytical process linking spending to its seven very broad priorities.

But a much-anticipated announcement this week on where the cuts will fall did not do so, providing no details of the impact on countries or programmes, only how much would be spent in priority areas. The one exception was a politically popular, but financially trivial, cut in aid to China.

For charities it left the overall impression of evasion and a government unwilling to spell out the consequences of its own decisions. Through the glass darkly, it was possible to see spending on girls’ education and humanitarian aid had been cut by 25% and 40% respectively.

One MP admitted: “We are now in a race against time. These cuts are happening. Health centres are closing. Nutrition is suffering and so is our country’s hard-won reputation. Something very precious is being smashed to pieces.”



READ SOURCE

Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more