We may have a new Prime Minister, but we are sadly seeing no end to foreign aid budget cuts in sight. During the pandemic, then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the UK government would be slashing humanitarian aid due to domestic welfare needs. This has led to a devastating, far-reaching impact on developing nations, and has forced the government to introduce a panicked, reactive and un-coordinated approach to global crises.
The most pressing problems being faced by developing nations, such as those related to deep-seated issues such as climate change, poverty and water hygiene, cannot be solved by knee-jerk injections of aid. They instead require strategic, long-term programs – which can only be successfully implemented with adequate funding and unwavering commitment. In 2021, Sunak confirmed that the UK would be reducing its expenditure on foreign aid from 0.7% of its Gross National Income (GNI) to just 0.5%. He underlined that this would continue to at least 2024; however, analysts are expecting the government to break this pledge to restore the 0.7% commitment.
This reflects a worrying wider trend of the UK cooling its humanitarian aid efforts – something that was previously a great source of pride. A number of non-governmental organisations working to help Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugees highlight that their UK-based funding has been cut by a staggering 42%. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative also announced that the UK government had decided to reduce its support by 95%, putting millions of children at an increased risk of contracting potentially fatal diseases and seeing it spread beyond the developing world.
To add insult to injury, in 2021 the UK reined in its UNICEF core funding by around 60%; instead, the UK is focussing on specific, bilaterally funded projects. Various aid charities have complained that this is merely an attempt to boost UK trade opportunities under the guise of humanitarian work.
The justification given for the 2021 foreign aid budget cut was that the UK’s struggling economy as a result of the pandemic. Of course, during such choppy waters as these, it is entirely understandable that certain funds have to be redistributed in order to keep the UK afloat. However, at the same time, this does not make it acceptable to sink other, less affluent ships in the process.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the situation is the fact that the UK seems to be caught in a no-man’s-land between cold isolationism and open-armed humanitarianism. Despite cutting its foreign aid budget, the intensity of recent global emergencies has seen the UK frantically trying to put out fires as they spring up. When Pakistan was hit with unprecedented floods, which have damaged just shy of a million houses, former Prime Minister Liz Truss swiftly channeled £15 million of UK support to supply shelter and essential resources. Furthermore, following the catastrophic earthquake in Afghanistan earlier this year, Liz Truss – who at the time was the Foreign Secretary – allocated £2.5 million to help the rehabilitation effort.
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Yet this reactive policy-making is an ineffective means of providing genuine, lasting support to these struggling nations. Many of these natural disasters can be traced back to the effects of climate change, which has been predominantly fossil-fuelled by the developed world. Pakistan, for example, causes less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, and yet it is suffering the consequences of other countries’ climate damage.
Nations such as the UK need to accept the uncomfortable truth that we have a moral responsibility to help these developing nations. But this help cannot continue to arrive in the form of financial band-aids being hurriedly plastered over bullet-holes. The solution is to reinstate the 0.7% budget allocation to foreign aid, and to implement long-term strategies for helping to mitigate the climate-based devastation being experienced across the globe.
Some may argue that, at a time when there is a rapidly deteriorating cost-of-living crisis and Ukraine is in desperate need of resources, all other foreign aid simply has to take a back-seat. The UK is pledging another yearly £120 million of aid to Ukraine, and spending on the 118,000 Ukrainian refugees welcomed into the UK has – somewhat controversially – been included as “Official Development Assistance”, which means it will be taken out of the ever-diminishing foreign aid budget. Save the Children has estimated that this will cost £3 billion, which would represent a quarter of all aid spending for 2022.
However, it should not be a case of prioritising crises. It is up to the government to adhere to its funding commitments and continue to support all those countries in need – and slashing the foreign aid budget is not going to achieve this. While many may claim that we are right to focus our GNI on Ukraine and domestic welfare, if we look to the example of Sweden, we see that this does not need to be an either-or situation.
Prior to the pandemic, Sweden was leading the way by giving over 1% of its GNI to Official Development Assistance. Then in 2021, in spite of the effects of COVID-19, Sweden continued to allocate this 1% to foreign aid, focussing this towards low- and middle-income countries. In addition to this, although Sweden initially drew criticism for plans to use almost a fifth of its annual aid budget to help pay for its Ukrainian refugees, it has since established a more evenly distributed foreign aid allocation. This has involved redirecting almost $400 million towards Official Development Assistance. The UK cannot continue to use the post-pandemic economic crisis and the Ukrainian conflict as reasons to neglect its global duty. The government must stop offering aid in the form of quick-fix, short-term funding pledges. Rather, at the very least, the UK government must reinstate the 0.7% GNI allocation to foreign aid as soon as possible. If it does not, the damage will be far too deeply entrenched and long-lasting to be tackled by even a 1% GNI allocation – let alone the measly 0.5% currently on offer.
Mukhtar Karim is CEO of humanitarian charity Lady Fatemah Trust. He has contributed to Reuters, Newsweek The Independent and City AM.