Boris Johnson’s government is resisting the warnings of five former prime ministers and implementing major cuts to Britain’s international aid budget. This is obviously grim news for recipients of UK aid: people in the world’s poorest countries. These include the hungry, the poor, disadvantaged children (especially girls), infants needing immunisation, those at the sharpest end of the climate emergency and refugees. And this comes, just as, according to the World Bank, we are seeing the first year-on-year increase in extreme poverty in two decades.
The current aid allocation is calculated as a percentage share of gross national income (GNI) which government now intends to cut from 0.7% to 0.5%. This is on top of the major knock spending has already taken this year, with GNI falling considerably because of the Covid crisis. This means the overall aid budget is expected to shrink from £15 billion before the pandemic to around £10 billion in 2020/21, a cut of some 33%.
It’s also bad news for anyone who hoped the UK under Johnson would at least maintain its commitment to the world poverty and climate change agendas. For the past 25 years, governments of left and right have gradually turned the UK into a genuine big beast in the world of international development. This is largely due to the considerable investment in a well-resourced Department for International Development (DFID) as well as the slow building of a national capacity to participate in the numerous development processes that take place in all the key sectors: health, education, infrastructure, governance, agriculture, security and so on. The UK’s lead in many of these areas was a textbook example of the exercise of soft power, and it was on the back of this that the UK has been preparing to chair the vital G7 and COP26 international conferences next year.
What a time to gut the budget.
For Sussex residents there is a local angle too, albeit not on the scale of these others. The aid sector has a special dominance in our local economy. We have a handful of major international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based here, with skilled staff and their families. We have several world-class international consultancy companies. And, of course, we have the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, ranked first in the world for development studies by the QS University Rankings, above Harvard and Oxford, for four out of the past five years.
Two birds with one stone
So why is Johnson’s government doing this? First off, it’s not because of economic pressure. Borrowing has certainly risen alarmingly because of Covid, but the historically low level of interest rates means that the cost of servicing the debt has actually fallen. And, in the wider context, the additional cuts proposed, worth some £3-4bn, are chickenfeed compared to the extra Covid expenditure of some £280bn. The ‘saving’ is not needed to maintain the confidence of the financial markets, and government doesn’t need to do it to spend more on the things they want to spend on (the military inevitably).
The reason is of course that, not content with just lashing out at Europe or the BBC or woke activists, Johnson, foreign secretary Raab and their acolytes want to open another front in the culture war.
The English nationalists that have taken over the Tory party know there is political capital to be made with their base: both from bashing Johnny Foreigner (increasingly including the Irish, Scots and Welsh) and from baiting liberals. Brutalising the aid department kills two birds with one stone. When Johnson was foreign secretary he hated the dedicated people in the rival DFID ministry and his successor, Dominic Raab, has been happy to stick the knife in further. He wrote to his own staff last month: [From now on] “all aid projects will be assessed through a new management process led by the Foreign Office (FCDO). Programmes will be judged against how they fit with the UK’s strategic objectives … failing or underperforming projects will be weeded out and closed.”
You can picture how the former DFID staff, committed but already much demoralised development workers, feel about that.
Raab doesn’t even bother to try to justify the change to the public. His decree was announced in the Financial Times, so hardly shouting it from the rooftops. At the same time, the streetfighters in Johnson’s cabal are using the popular press to fan the usual little Englander flames. Ian Birrell in the Daily Mail writes “Good riddance to the self-serving Department for International Narcissists” (it takes one to know one) while calling for the axing of Comic Relief and ‘its neo-colonial ideas’. Tory MPs like Philip Davies are also crowing over what they have done: “I suspect the vast majority of the British public will not be asking why we cut so much but be asking why we are still spending so much…”
A heartening vision of the new England. Or not. Depending on your point of view.