Foreign aid in the age of COVID

By Juliet Bevis, Account Executive, Cicero/AMO

The Spending Review typically presents an opportunity for Chancellors to ingratiate themselves with their party. Instead, Chancellor Rishi Sunak used the platform to tear up a manifesto commitment and ignite a forthcoming rebellion with the announcement that the foreign aid budget would be temporarily reduced to 0.5% of national income. This was a politically easy decision at a time when spending cuts were desperately needed but one that has been heavily criticised both within the party and across the benches by members past and present.

In December 2019, the Conservative party manifesto outlined that “we will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI (Gross National Income) on development”. Internally the decision unleashed significant backlash, with senior Conservatives such as Caroline Noakes MP stating that it amounted to “the wrong policy at the worst possible time” and former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell MP noting that “it will diminish us on the world stage”.

This line of attack may need to be re-evaluated considering the UK has pledged to donate a majority of its surplus vaccine supply to poorer countries. Nevertheless, a rebellion is expected when legislation to impose the reduction is brought before Parliament.

Beyond breaching a manifesto pledge, the decision leaves the UK vulnerable to future unforeseen global health events such as the next pandemic. The past year has shown us all too well how a health emergency even in a city thousands of miles from our border can bring our lives and economy to a standstill. To prevent, detect and contain the next pandemic and increase the UK’s health security, public health systems in lower and middle-income countries must be strengthened – and one way in which the UK can support this is through foreign aid.

In the same way that COVID-19 will not be defeated until the rest of the world has been vaccinated, the UK will not be safe from future pandemics unless health care systems globally are strengthened. While having vaccinated over 20 million people in the UK is an extraordinary feat, life will not return to normal until something changes about the fact that as of 24 February around 130 countries were yet to begin their vaccination programmes. We cannot have delivered an incredibly successful vaccination programme and then let our guard down on another front and leave the country vulnerable to another wave of COVID-19 or the next pandemic arriving from overseas.

In 2019, health represented 14% of the overall aid budget, one of the largest five sectors at £1,431 million, with infectious disease control receiving £182 million. Maintaining these levels of spending and the continued funding of programs, whether it be health, education, or sanitation is imperative to maintain the UK’s health security. The Government needs to ensure protection not only within but outside our borders as well – it is not an either-or situation. This argument is supported by the fact that the British Foreign Policy Group 2021 Annual Survey found that 76% of Britons endorsed using foreign aid for the provision of health services and vaccinations and 72% supported delivering infrastructure for essential public services.

The Chancellor may also want to take into consideration the economic opportunities which arise from foreign aid. By utilising the aid budget to develop emerging markets and address market failures, the Government can create potential investment opportunities for the UK in the Global South as well as reducing barriers to international trade.

The Spring Budget is unlikely to touch on the aid budget or shed light on what “when the fiscal situation allows” really means. With the Chancellor already fighting a war on multiple fronts, he will hope to avoid another cross-examination on this matter. With the economy not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until the third quarter of 2022, it may already be too late as numerous vital programs will have closed. The Government might have ‘saved money’ in the short term, but it will be nothing compared to how much the next pandemic will cost. Foreign aid spending is difficult enough to justify on the doorstep when the economy is growing; how will politicians justify an ‘increase’ as the country grapples with the long-term impacts of COVID-19 for decades to come.

The Government now has an opportunity to reshape the narrative. What was once a theoretical discussion can now be illustrated to have a direct impact on our lives. There is no better time than now to make the argument that foreign aid can be deployed to prevent the next pandemic from originating overseas and arriving on our doorstep. Voters may well find themselves in favour of foreign aid if the argument is made that this previously ‘invisible spending’ which wasn’t seen to have an impact on our lives is being used to keep us safe and ensure that we don’t relive the nightmare that 2020 brought. Failure to do so may well see 0.5% become the standard as the Government makes another politically easy but wrong decision. Once a manifesto commitment has been broken, what is stopping the Conservatives from reducing the budget again or overturning one of their other promises? Only time will tell.

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Juliet Bevis

Account Executive