The Guardian view on slashing foreign aid: Britain is abandoning the desperate | Editorial
Tuesday was a day of shame for Britain. The world is enduring a catastrophe of the kind that happens once a century, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons. Extraordinarily, this was his justification for slashing life-saving aid, arguing that the UK could not afford it. The government carried the day, fending off a rebellion against the cuts by 35 votes.
But the disaster that the prime minister described is precisely why so many in his party voted against reneging on the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid. Though coronavirus has brought financial pressures for Britain, it has proved ruinous elsewhere: on Monday, a United Nations report warned that almost one in three people globally are going hungry. At the very moment when help is most needed, it is being snatched away. The economic damage wreaked by Covid already meant that Britain would be spending less in absolute terms. To cut funding further, to 0.5%, is an ugly act. Other countries are increasing their funding, albeit often from a lower base.
The £4bn saved is just 1% of last year’s government borrowing. Yet the impact of taking it away will be huge. Without it, as Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, spelt out, “fewer girls will be educated, more boys and girls will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die”. The cuts will lead to an estimated 100,000 preventable deaths and millions more facing malnutrition. Yemen, experiencing what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, is losing 60% of its funding.
In setting out the conditions for a return to 0.7%, the government claimed to be offering reassurance of its commitment, while in fact demonstrating that this is a long-term change rather than a temporary measure. The tests it established have been met only once in the last 20 years. They are unlikely to be met within the next five. They offered cover to Tory MPs rightly embarrassed at dumping a manifesto promise that they were elected on just a year and a half ago, but did not address the moral failure or the damage caused to the national interest.
It is almost beyond belief that the government would cut spending on global health – including Covid research and basic sanitation – just as coronavirus has shown that our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the rest of the world’s. Aid funding also boosts stability, security and soft power; both friends and rivals will take note of the cuts. In the supposed year of British leadership, this country has shown itself to be not only mean but shortsighted. Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, reportedly warned that it will damage our ability to reach a deal when Britain hosts November’s critical summit. The UK is asking developing countries to meet climate pledges, while claiming it can no longer meet its commitments. It is asking other nations to trust us while acting as an unpredictable and dishonest partner.
The government has concluded that the 0.7% pledge, which helped to rebrand the “nasty party”, is no longer electorally useful. Mr Johnson would like us to believe that it is a choice between supporting British hospitals and schools or helping faraway strangers. Yet support for aid has increased among both right- and left-leaning voters, and Tory MPs cited the cuts as a factor in the party’s defeat by the Liberal Democrats at the Chesham and Amersham byelection. The government got away with its betrayal in the Commons, despite a spirited and principled Conservative rebellion. But it should expect to pay both at home and abroad.