The recent announcement of cuts to the UK’s overseas aid fund has triggered social media outcry and hang wringing from politicians, charity bosses and think tanks alike. However, why does the slashing of the budget from 0.7% of national income to 0.5% warrant such indignation? The change comes as the UK is faced with an economic crisis. The general defence of the policy is that the UK cannot justify spending abroad when there are pressing issues at home. Former Prime Minister Theresa May wrote in The Daily Mail a long piece on the importance of an internationally observing Britain. She stated that the reduction of spending constituted a threat to our credibility because “other countries listen to what we say not simply because of who we are, but because of what we do” .
Regardless of any individual’s thoughts on this neo-colonial language and argument, it cannot be denied that these cuts will have a negative effect, not just on Britain’s standing, but on the people this money helps. A Foreign Office Minister has even resigned as a direct result . Activist Chernor Bah, who co-founded Purposeful, “a feminist movement-building hub for adolescent girls” in Sierra Leone said the cuts were a “gut punch that will crumble life-saving work“ . Indeed, in a pandemic which has struck the charity sector, this news is crushing. In the UK, one in ten charities are expected to close in a year . This is being felt across the world, and in places that need development aid, the effects are especially egregious. Oxfam’s head of policy and advocacy, Sam Nadel said that the cuts “would mean less money for the poorest communities just when they need it most”. He also brought up an interesting point that cutting funding has “serious implications in the fight against COVID-19” . At a time when we are bombarded with “we’re all in this together” and “we’re only as strong as the weakest link,” it feels phenomenally short-sighted to cut essential funding to people and nations who need it most. Especially when this pandemic cannot end until there is herd immunity reached by vaccinating enough people across the world. Until then, how can families isolate and socially distance when food instability forces them out of the house every day to work in situations that have not been modified to protect them? The international development sector, and indeed, many politicians and observers are demanding a return to the 0.7% budget.
This is not the only cause of consternation in the sector. Last year, the Prime Minister announced the merge between the department for international development and the foreign office. Many are concerned that this will lead to further erosion of the UK international development objectives and Sir Keir Starmer has vowed to reinstate the agency as a stand-alone department if Labour is elected . However, this move does make some sense. By uniting the departments, the UK will hopefully be able to develop a more aligned and consistent set of foreign policy goals. As it stands, it does not make sense to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a conflict in Yemen, while simultaneously pledging to spend £14 million to help the people of Yemen .
Regardless of personal views on these actions, it does show a clear reorientation of foreign policy objectives by the government. It is up to us to ask whether we like the kind of country this shows us to be to the world.
This article was written on January 29th.