Take Global Britain, add defence spending and then subtract foreign aid cuts, and what do you get? Globalish Britain?
There’s an inherent tension between Global Britain, as defi ned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and cutting a key soft- power tool that helps Britain to continue to ‘punch above its weight’ around the globe. There’s a further tension when you add increased defence spending because the increase is almost the same amount as the aid cuts – about £4 billion per annum. What message does that send about the type of presence Britain will have in the world?
Johnson has been talking about Global Britain since 2016, when he described the nation as being ‘more outward-looking and more engaged with the world than ever before’. He also said ‘there will be cynics who say we can’t afford it. I say we can’t afford not to.’ But last month, it was announced that the country could no longer afford to meet the commitment, enshrined in law, to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid. It’s being reduced to 0.5 per cent. Johnson blamed Covid-19 for the decision, saying it was due to the ‘current strained circumstances’. And yet the money is being found for defence, so the choice has clearly been made: the UK’s ability to protect itself and project force is the priority.
You can make an argument for this position, just as you can draw up a long list of problems with aid and the way in which British taxpayers’ money is spent in some of the world’s most corrupt countries. You can even have the debate about whether, in the long term, aid helps or harms economic growth in recipient countries. However, it’s more difficult to argue that a reduction in foreign aid spending doesn’t reduce Britain’s standing in the world as ‘outward looking and more engaged’ and won’t, in the short to medium term, result in more suffering. It does and it will.
The government insists that the UK will ‘remain a world-leading aid donor’. That’s true. The UK will still be in the top five countries in monies spent, although several other nations spend more if measured in GDP terms, for example Luxembourg (1.05 per cent), Sweden (0.99 per cent) and Denmark (0.71 per cent). However you measure it, at the sharp end of the decision are tens of millions of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people, whose health, education and democratic institutions will all be damaged. For example, Africa’s Sahel region, suffering from conflict and hit hard by climate change, will see aid reduced from £340 million to £23 million at the same time as the UK’s military commitment to counter terrorism in the Sahel is growing.
The cuts have been condemned by aid agencies and across the political spectrum. A minister has resigned, several former prime ministers have voiced criticism, and there’s significant opposition inside the Conservative Party. In 1970, the UK pledged the 0.7 per cent figure as part of a UN agreement, and it was signed into law in 2015. The government has been warned by a former Conservative solicitor general, Lord Garnier, that without new legislation, the cuts may be unlawful. The government says the cuts are ‘temporary’, so fresh legislation is unnecessary.
Conservative MP Neil Parish has gone so far as to argue that the decision has dealt a ‘potentially lethal blow’ to the UK’s hopes for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November. In a Times article, he said one of the main tasks of the host is to raise money to tackle climate change but ‘no nation will listen when we’re reducing our overseas aid... They can give the exact same excuse for not doing so — and the UK has no leg to stand on when they do.’
We’ll see if that turns out to be the case. US President Joe Biden is making climate a policy priority and there will be immense pressure to at least pledge huge sums – even if pledges and hard cash are often different things. What is true is that developing nations, who feel that most of climate change isn’t their fault and are suffering from a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines from richer countries, are now also facing a reduction in aid.
The British reduction represents just one per cent of this year’s borrowing to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic, but for villages and farms across Africa and Asia, there will be serious consequences, according to aid groups. The term ‘Global Britain’, never clearly defined, was coined in 2016 - pre-Covid. Times change, as does how much money there is around. There’s less now than five years ago and hard choices need to be made. But in reducing aid, you also reduce the global in Global Britain.