Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.
Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.”
Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.
One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.
Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.
And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.
If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent.
Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.
Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that elicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.