‘Global Britain’ – that was the inspired vision touted by Boris Johnson in the wake of the UK’s watershed decision to withdraw from the EU in 2016. Yet, amidst the noise and the furore of the pandemic, the prime minister has recently taken a decision that appears to directly contradict his famous mantra: cutting the overseas aid budget below 0.7% of national income.
Despite being heavily criticised by his predecessors, both David Cameron and Theresa May, Boris Johnson’s decision to slash foreign aid has received remarkably little scrutiny outside of the political sphere. This can be attributed in part to the COVID-19 crisis.
As the UK enters its worst recession in peacetime history and large swathes of people struggle to keep their heads above water, it is somewhat understandable that foreign aid and international development are not at the top of the public’s priority list. In fact, one might even go as far as to argue that the prime minister’s decision is politically astute.
Boris Johnson most covets the support of those so-called ‘red wall’ voters who turned out in their droves to vote for him during the 2019 December general election. In their eyes, most probably, the logic follows that it would be more sensible to get one’s own house in order before extending an olive branch to others. This was certainly the position taken by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who said it was hard to “justify” maintaining the figure at 0.7% with the UK facing record borrowing.
However, scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that the motive underpinning the cut to foreign aid is inherently flawed. Pandemics, by their very nature, affect everyone and it is this all too important detail that Boris Johnson has failed to account for. COVID-19, a virus that has not left one corner of the world untouched, is a global dilemma that requires a global solution. It respects neither borders nor racial and class divides.
A recent study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce concluded that the continued pandemic in poor countries is likely to be worst for industries that are especially dependent on suppliers around the world.
Put simply, only by equipping all countries with the tools they require to fight the virus can we hope to weather its worst effects. By cutting the aid budget below 0.7% in the pursuit of domestic success, support is being withdrawn from those countries on whose prosperity we all rely. Far from being a pragmatic decision, the government is effectively shooting itself in the foot.
But there is also a wider, perhaps more insidious implication to the decision. This was aptly summarised by former Prime Minister Theresa May, who wrote in the Daily Mail just last week that by slashing the overseas aid budget below 0.7% of national income, Boris Johnson is abandoning the UK’s moral leadership.
Last summer, instigated by the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing raft of Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the US, the UK was forced to take a long and hard look at itself and consider its place in the world. In effect, the UK’s commitment to foreign aid is a method by which it can atone for the atrocities perpetrated during the colonial period. And yet, on the international stage, there are many achievements of which this country can be proud.
The commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, enshrined in UK law, was such an achievement. By adhering to the 0.7% figure, the UK spends a higher percentage of its national income on foreign aid than any other G7 country, including both Germany and France who spend 0.6% and 0.44% respectively. This aid is directed towards combating scourges such as extreme poverty, lack of access to clean water and vaccinations, to name just a few.
Now the UK has reneged on its promise, it has been suggested that there may be up to 100,000 more preventable deaths, mainly among children. At a time when liberal democracies are facing an existential threat posed by autocracies such as Russia and China, moral credibility is an important asset. The UK’s has just been dented.
As has so often been the case with this prime minister, Boris Johnson wants to have his cake and eat it. However, there is paradox at the heart of his conservative government: that of a nation which purports to be international and open-minded while simultaneously taking decisions that alienate its closest allies and ignoring its international obligations and commitments.
Let it be known, when push came to shove, Boris Johnson opted for the latter.