As a former Parliamentary Private Secretary in the (then) Department for International Development and Chair of the British Council APPG, I’ve seen first-hand the tangible differences made by the UK’s aid programme. But alongside the literally life-saving effects of our 0.7% commitment, our aid budget also carries a huge symbolic importance.
Of course, on the face of it, the case for trimming our aid budget is obvious. We face an enormously serious economic situation and closing the COVID deficit will be a generational challenge. But I cannot agree with those who feel that we should search for economies at the expense of the most vulnerable, globally. In recent years the UK has led the way on combatting modern slavery, championing the rights of women and girls, and tackling sexual violence in conflict. And just by way of context, it’s worth emphasising that, owing to our aid spending, 55 million children have been vaccinated against preventable diseases, 50 million people have been given the means to work their way out of poverty, the lives of 50,000 women in pregnancy have been saved and 10 million children have been saved from the blight of hunger.
When reductions to the aid budget have been proposed in the past, I was proud to speak out in its defence – and I remain unpersuaded by those who believe we should mitigate our economic difficulties by cutting our foreign aid. The amount saved by cutting aid spending by 0.2 per cent of GNI to 0.5 per cent is absolutely negligible compared with the yawning COVID deficit, and will do little to alleviate the current domestic economic crisis.
Those who have made the case for cutting aid have suggested that it would signal a determination to help those who are suffering in our own country. But if we are to traffic in symbolism, I would rather that we signal our determination to continue defending our values and those blighted by famine, preventable disease and grinding poverty.
We have already seen humanitarian support for Yemen (with Yemenis suffering the effects of a prolonged proxy war), £120m cut from UK universities’ research funding and VSO decimated. And even on an economic level, these changes stand to reduce UK soft power (especially given that we are the only G7 country cutting its aid budget) and reduce, as a consequence, inward investment into the UK.
So I believe that there is both a pragmatic and moral case (also enshrined in the manifesto on which I stood at the last election) – for maintaining our aid budget at 0.7% of GDP. I’ve been working with Andrew Mitchell MP (who’s been leading the pushback on this) and we are in discussions with the Government to try to convince and to push for this to be reconsidered. I very much hope that a rethink is forthcoming but if not, I will continue to press for maintaining this invaluable global support.
The worth of a commitment is whether or not it is maintained in the face of external challenges. And I will be arguing (and voting) for the UK to do just that – maintain our commitment to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable at a time when their plight is exacerbated by COVID-19.