UK slashes foreign aid by 4bn pounds

Published November 26, 2020
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows screens displaying Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attending remotely via a video call. — AFP
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows screens displaying Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attending remotely via a video call. — AFP

LONDON: The British government faced fury on Wednesday over its decision to ditch its long-standing target for overseas aid in the wake of what it described as the deepest recession in over three centuries.

In a statement to lawmakers, Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said the target to allocate 0.7 per cent of national income to overseas aid will be cut to 0.5pc. The move is expected to free up 4 billion pounds ($5.3 billion) for the Conservative government to use elsewhere, money that critics say could be used to save tens of thousands of lives in the poorest parts of the world.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week announced Britain’s biggest programme of military investment since the end of the Cold War with extra spending of 16.5 billion pounds, as the country positions itself for a post-EU future.

While expressing great respect to those who have argued passionately to retain this target, Sunak said sticking rigidly to it is difficult to justify” to people at a time when the economy has been so battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

At a time of unprecedented crisis, government must make tough choices, he said.

Without giving a timetable, he said that the government aims to return to the target first laid out by the Labour government of Tony Blair in 2004. And he said that even with the new target, the UK will still be the second biggest aid spender among the Group of Seven leading industrial nations.

Johnson announced last week 16.5 billion pounds increase in Britain’s military investment

The decision goes against the government’s promise last year to maintain the aid target and drew sharp criticism from across the political spectrum, including within Prime Minister Boris Johnsons own Conservative Party.

Liz Sugg, a junior minister at the Foreign Office, has quit, arguing that the decision will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right.

The UK has for years been considered one of the world’s leaders in development and aid so the government’s decision to lower the target was met with anger and dismay from poverty campaigners.

Cutting the UK’s lifeline to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a global pandemic will lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths,” said Oxfam Chief Executive Danny Sriskandarajah.

Save the Children Chief Executive Kevin Watkins also said the decision had broken Britain’s reputation for leadership on the world stage ahead of its hosting of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference next year.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby joined the chorus of disapproval, describing the cut as “shameful and wrong and urging lawmakers to reject it for the good of the poorest, and the UK’s own reputation and interest.

In a sobering assessment that provided the backdrop to the cut, Sunak sought to balance ongoing support for the economy with a longer-term commitment to heal public finances after a stark deterioration.

Our health emergency is not yet over and our economic emergency has only just begun, he said.

Sunak said the government’s independent economic forecasters are predicting that the British economy will shrink 11.3pc this year, the largest fall in output for more than 300 years.

The Office for Budget Responsibility expects the economy to grow again next year as coronavirus restrictions are eased and hoped-for vaccines come on stream. The agency is predicting growth of 5.5pc in 2021 and 6.6pc the following year. As a result the output lost during the pandemic won’t have been recouped until the final quarter of 2022.

Sunak warned that the pandemic’s cost will create long-term scarring, with the economy 3pc smaller in 2025 than predicted in March, before the spring lockdown.

The massive fall in output this year has led to a huge increase in public borrowing as the government sought to cushion the blow and tax revenues fell. Sunak said the government has pumped 280 billion pounds into the economy to get through the pandemic. Public borrowing this fiscal year is set to hit 394 billion pounds, or 19pc of national income, the highest recorded level of borrowing in our peacetime history.

He warned that underlying public debt is rising towards 100pc of annual GDP.

High as these costs are, the costs of inaction would have been far higher,” he said. But this situation is clearly unsustainable over the medium term.

Sunak said the 1 million doctors and nurses in the National Health Service will get a pay rise next year, as will 2.1 million of the lowest paid workers in the public sector. However, he said pay rises in the rest of the public sector will be paused next year.

Sunak also announced extra money to support Johnson’s program of investments in infrastructure across the UK, particularly in the north of England, where the Conservatives won seats during the last general election. A new infrastructure bank will also be headquartered in the north of England.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2020

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