Critics have expressed outrage and a minister has resigned in protest at chancellor's decision to cut the UK aid budget, which has reignited fears sparked by the scrapping of the Department for International Development that the government is stepping back from its global development role.
Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that Official Development Assistance would be temporarily cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of UK national income in a bid to dampen the hit to the UK economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The cut will accompany a change in direction for the UK’s aid strategy, with foreign secretary Dominic Raab indicating yesterday that cash would be redirected to countries where the UK’s “development, security, and economic interests align”.
Sunak said in his Spending Review announcement that the UK should prioritise domestic spending during the coronavirus crisis, and that spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid was “difficult to justify to the British people”.
The cut has angered non-governmental organisations and some MPs, who say it will harm the UK's reputation and role on the global stage.
And the PCS union meanwhile said that following the merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development this autumn, cutting the aid budget "sends the message to former DfID staff that they are not equally valued".
The Treasury said the cut would be restored “when the fiscal situation allows”.
But yesterday, Raab warned that there was no guarantee the £4bn cut would be reversed in the “foreseeable, immediate future”.
Shortly after the cut was announced, Baroness Elizabeth Sugg quit her role as a junior minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in protest, calling it "fundamentally wrong".
In her resignation letter to the prime minister, Sugg wrote: "This promise should be kept in the tough times as well as the good.
"Given the link between our development spend and the health of our economy, the economic downturn has already led to significant cuts this year and I do not believe we should reduce our support further at a time of unprecedented global crises.”
Sugg, a Conservative peer, warned Boris Johnson that the cut “risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right" – goals Johnson said he wanted to achieve when he merged the FCO and DfID into the FCO earlier this year.
For some critics, this week’s announcement has realised fears that the merger could lead to a lower level of commitment to foreign aid.
When the merger was announced, former ministers and civil servants urged the prime minister not to drop the 0.7% commitment. Raab said at the time that the target was enshrined in law and would “absolutely” survive the merger.
Spending 0.7% of national income on ODA is a requirement of the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act, as well as a Conservative Party manifesto commitment. The act allows for ministers to miss the target in exceptional circumstances, but this exemption only applies retrospectively.
Because the economic uncertainty during the pandemic means ministers are unwilling to commit to a date to restore the 0.7% benchmark, Raab said they would need to change the law to reduce the aid-spending target.
He confirmed that due to the "inherent degree of uncertainty" amid the pandemic, ministers were unwilling to commit to a timeframe for reversing the cut.
"It's very clear that if we cannot see a path forward back to 0.7% in the foreseeable, immediate future, and we can't plan for that, then the legislation would require us to change it," he added.
"And it would almost certainly face legal challenge if we don't very carefully follow it," he said.
PCS meanwhile said former DfID staff, many of whom are "mission driven and wanted to help those in poverty around the globe", had been "left angry but not completely surprised at this development".
It warned the cut could also impact on jobs as the budget covers staffing costs.
"Staff have been told that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of the DfID/FCO merger, however, no such assurances have been given in respect of the cut in ODA and none of this rules out swathes of redundancies through other means," the trade union said in a statement.
'A very sad moment'
Former development secretary Andrew Mitchell, who is leading a rebellion of MPs who plan to vote against the legislation to implement the cut, said it marked a “dismal start to the British chairmanship of the G7, and UN climate change conference”.
“The 0.7% was not just one commitment, it was a commitment to the poor made by every single member of the Commons at the last election, apart from the DUP. This is about Britain’s leadership role in the world,” he said.
Shadow international development secretary Preet Kaur Gill said the Labour Party would work with Mitchell and other Conservative MPs to "stop this retreat".
Mitchell was among those who strongly opposed the scrapping of DfID, along with other former aid ministers including Lord Chris Patten, who warned earlier this year that giving Foreign Office ministers responsibility for both the development budget and diplomacy was “asking for trouble”.
Sarah Champion, chair of the parliament’s International Development Committee, meanwhile called for clarity on what the cuts would mean, asking: “What is the criteria for the cuts, will there be impact assessments, will the sector, or parliament, be consulted?”
Tom Tugendhat, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile said he was "disappointed" and that new law should specify an end date for the cut.
Former prime minister David Cameron, who wrote the 0.7% commitment into law, said the cut was "regrettable" and “a very sad moment”.
"I totally understand... that we have to make difficult decisions, that you have to think about the future of the public finances... but really, is saying that for every £10 the economy earns, that we're going to put 7p towards the poorest people, the poorest countries in the world, is that really too much?"
"Putting food on people's tables, vaccinating children, stopping mothers from dying in childbirth – these were brilliant things we were doing it and it said something brilliant about this country, and it's sad we're standing back from that," said Cameron, who had earlier branded the FCO-DfID merger a “mistake”.
The move has also angered non-governmental organisations. Mark Sheard, chief executive of the humanitarian charity World Vision, urged the government to “reverse this decision immediately”.
He said the move “risks undermining the UK’s global reputation and credibility ahead of a year in which it will co-host the G-7, COP26 [climate summit], and the Global Education Summit, and while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rip through vulnerable communities”.
Romilly Greenhill, UK director of The ONE Campaign, a campaigning and advocacy organisation dedicated to ending extreme poverty, said the decision was like “defunding the RAF at the height of the Battle of Britain”.
“It’s bad economics that will end up costing more than it saves, and bad foreign policy that reduces Britain's influence around the world. And it couldn’t come at a worse time,” she said.
She urged the chancellor to keep the reduction in place for “the shortest period possible”, in order for the UK to be a “serious actor” on the global stage.