Yesterday, a group of more than thirty Tory backbenchers sought to resist the Government’s decision to maintain reduced foreign aid spending. Amongst those rebels was former Prime Minister Theresa May, whose intervention as third speaker in the Commons was insufficient in swinging the vote. In this highly anticipated and closely fought battle, Sunak was successful in warding off a backbench revolt.
In a written ministerial statement by the Chancellor on July 12th, the Treasury’s decision to keep Overseas Development Aid (ODA) at a level of 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) until the fiscal situation allows otherwise was delineated. The circumstances under which the Government proposes a return to 0.7 per cent would be responsible included when “we are not borrowing for day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling”.
Considering the exceptional circumstances throughout the pandemic, the decision to temporarily cut ODA in line with The International Development Act 2015 was both practical and sensible. In times of immense economic strain, the country simply could not maintain this pre-pandemic commitment. However, sustaining this reduced quota for years to come under the guise of fiscal uncertainty is not necessarily the right decision.
Those in opposition to the Chancellor’s proposal have argued that the Government will not only be in breach of their moral obligation to provide essential aid, but that such a move will weaken the Government’s negotiating position, ability to deliver on its international goals and will breach promises made in its 2019 manifesto.
Our G7 counterparts are all planning to officially meet their aid commitments, whilst we could be seen to be telling the world that we no longer have the financial capacity to meet our foreign policy goals. The Government is right to take a cautious approach, and cuts will need to be made somewhere, but potentially sacrificing some of our international stature will be a high a price to pay.
Whilst Sunak reiterates that such measures are only ‘temporary’, the figures suggest otherwise. Considering the current state of the economy in tandem with fiscal forecasts, it is quite possible that the criteria needed to return ODA to 0.7 per cent of GNI will likely not be met during the current Parliament, possibly longer.
This said, the British people’s concerns over foreign aid spending are legitimate. The Government’s primary responsibility is to its own citizens, and it is right to first support people at home before looking abroad to provide aid globally. Spending should rightly resume when British finances are in better health, but the Government has not been clear enough about when this will happen.
The UK could hold off on the 0.7 per cent targets for a while, but I am concerned that this could be sustained for years to come, and the Treasury’s proposals do not present a clear enough path back to the 0.7 per cent commitment. The principle of tying foreign aid spending to the health of the UK economy is sound, but the government’s method leaves a lot to be desired.
We must not forget that Brexit is an opportunity to reengage with the world as a global player – to recover a position that we once wilfully abdicated. Foreign aid gives us greater influence and scope, two commodities that the UK must be sure to preserve whist navigating our new path as a sovereign country. Whilst the government maintains reduced ODA, they must be vigilant of the international political climate and make certain that the Treasury spend does not influence the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts to the degree that spending does not return to 0.7 per cent. The decision to maintain lower aid spending must be balanced with international commitments; these decisions cannot be made in a vacuum.
Finally, even at the 0.5 per cent level, the Government should also better regulate how aid provided by the British taxpayer is spent, making certain that spending does not constitute handouts to corrupt officials, authoritarian regimes, or wealthy nations. Reforms, coupled with clearer direction from the Treasury, will serve to make better use of British funds, affirm our international standing as a forerunner in international development and assure Tory rebels that cuts are not indefinite.