On Wednesday 25th November, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, released his Spending Review, which sought to highlight the range of measures the government would take to ‘protect people’s lives and livelihoods’ as the country continues to grapple with the effects of Covid-19. The economic impacts of the virus have already been stark and projections for the future are bleak. Many commentators have suggested the long-term impacts will comfortably dwarf those of the 2008 Financial Crash. As such, Mr. Sunak indicated towards a range of policies that he feels can mediate the damage done to individuals and the economy as a whole. The headlines, laid out by the Chancellor, were that he would deliver record investment, restarting the U.K. economy; as well as increased funding for public services run ragged by a year combating Covid-19. These measures are much needed and should be welcomed. Investment in infrastructure, especially when it is ‘green-focused’, will hamper the virus’ long-term economic damage; whilst increased funding in public services will better support those who fought the outbreak at great personal cost.
However, another policy, laid out with far less fanfare, is neither much needed, nor totally necessary. This was the announcement that the U.K., in order to make savings amidst record borrowing, will cut its overseas aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income. This decision, which is a clear infringement of the campaign promises laid out in the Conservative Party manifesto, has been met with widespread dismay both in the U.K. and abroad.
At its core, the decision carries with it an uncomfortable moral statement transmitted from the U.K. to the rest of the world. Although Mr. Sunak’s announcement was lathered in the rhetoric of the U.K. remaining an ‘open and out-ward looking’ nation, committed to ‘solving the world’s toughest problems’, one can easily see the hard, miserly reality of a decision which ‘protects our own patch.’ No country, nor economy, has escaped the pandemic, but as the global economy continues to plummet, Mr. Sunak has shown that the U.K. is putting on her own lifejacket, before helping others. Regardless of neat, political phraseology, the message from the U.K. is clear: we are most definitely not in this together. What is more, if we dig beneath Sunak’s economic figures and political ‘realities,’ we also find ourselves confronted with the ugly moral question of whether ‘lives and livelihoods’ in Britain are more valuable than those in, say, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Yemen. Where the government lies on the debate is clear.
What is more surprising, however, is that this supposed display of harsh economic self-interest trumping the needs of others, does not seem to make much economic sense. As the government’s ‘commitment’ to aid spending is not a fixed figure, but rather a percentage of national income, it would have fallen alongside Covid-affected U.K. output, naturally removing some of the fiscal strain. As a result, a cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of a damaged U.K. economy, is only set to save around £3-4 billion, a figure which Larry Elliot in The Guardian identifies as ‘chickenfeed.’ When government borrowing is set to reach £400 billion this year, and Sunak has promised an £100 billion increase to capital expenditure, the savings made to the aid budget really are a drop in the ocean.
Furthermore, aid spending is not, as it is sometimes framed, some economic blackhole that sucks up a percentage of the U.K.’s resources, spends it on ‘goodwill’ and is never seen again. Instead, aid brings with it a wealth of economic benefits for the U.K., both in the short and long term. The most obvious being that the ‘aid industry’ provides thousands of jobs, and countless opportunities for British companies in a variety of fields. Moreover, alongside moral reasoning, the key tenet behind aid spending has always been that through aiding poorer countries, the U.K. is investing in its trade future, where a more dynamic and richer global environment brings greater opportunities for all. As £4 billion goes a lot further in developing economies, cuts to the aid budget in the name of U.K. recovery, is not only shortsighted, but shows a blind disregard for economic sense. In an intertwined, globalized world, U.K. recovery will depend, in large part, on global economic recovery and the stability of other nations in the coming years. Although a £4 billion saving may provide a minuscule economic rebalancing in the present, its future negative impacts will be enormous.
It is clear, therefore, that cuts in the aid budget, whilst dressed up in frilly economic justifications, are, in fact, deeply political. They reflect the introverted, isolationist dogmas of a small group of top Tories, and risk harming both the U.K. and the world at large. We must not forget that Mr. Sunak announced his cuts to the aid budget only a week after Boris Johnson had promised a £16.5 billion military spending boost. When weighing these two decisions against each other, a clear shift in British foreign policy becomes startlingly apparent. The U.K. is now less concerned with looking outwards, improving the world beyond its borders; instead, it wants to hide away, protecting its own short-term interests with a growing pile of weapons. Hence, aid cuts can be seen as a continuation of a reclusive, self-serving and short-sighted trend of political maneuverings by the Tory Party, that began with the effective abolishment of the Department for International Development (DFID), when it was merged with the Foreign Office earlier this year.
There is hope that widespread pressure will cause the Chancellor to go back on his decision. Both David Cameron and Tony Blair have expressed concern regarding the cuts, with Cameron calling the move ‘a moral, strategic and political mistake.’ Boris Johnson is also facing rebellion within his own party over the decision. On the same day that Mr. Sunak released his Spending Review, Foreign Office minister, Baroness Sugg, resigned in protest against a move she felt was ‘fundamentally wrong.’ Alongside this, former chief whip and international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has been organizing a rebellion amongst Conservative MPs, which has the potential to defeat the government on the decision. Given that the 0.7% target has been enshrined in law since 2015, cutting it may prove difficult for Mr. Sunak, especially given worry amongst politicians who fear the new 0.5% figure will remain permanent.
Outside of politics, dismay has been equally present. A letter, signed by 185 development and humanitarian charity leaders, was sent to Boris Johnson urging him to rethink the cuts. At the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told The Telegraph the move was “shameful and wrong” and showed the U.K. in a “less virtuous” light. Nobel prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, also tweeted expressing her disappointment with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.
However, dismay amongst the British public has been less universal. Despite its widespread benefits, aid is rarely a vote winner. A recent YouGov poll showed that 60% of the U.K. population feels the country spends too much on overseas aid. Politicians know well that it is not the recipients of aid that elect them. It is possible, therefore, that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak will be able to use these political realities, coupled with the crisis of a global pandemic, to further their own political goals. Nevertheless, greater efforts must be made, to better consider the moral missteps being made, as well as the clear economic and political short-termism that lies in cuts to the aid budget. A shift towards an introverted, isolationist foreign policy, that favours defence over aid, and ignores collective global improvement and moral focus, is disastrous for the U.K., and the world as a whole. It serves only to increase insecurity, both economic and political, putting individuals at greater risk in the U.K. and throughout the world.
The U.K. government cannot use the global pandemic as a way of duping the British public into unwise and shortsighted political moves, dressed up as economic necessity. If Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are really concerned about making economic savings, they should rethink the £16.5 billion boost in defence spending. Tanks and fighter jets are far more expensive than aid projects, and they provide far less in the way of long-term returns. Top political figures must continue to fight the cuts on moral, political and economic grounds, to prevent the U.K. becoming an inward-looking, protectionist power to the detriment of its own people and those abroad. Efforts must also be made to better inform and educate the public of the realities and benefits of aid spending for their own political and economic security. If not, politicians will continue to see aid not as a firm governmental responsibility, but rather as a shiny distraction, for political sleights of hand.
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