The proposed foreign aid cut. Many Tories are against it. But Sunak has limited options as he tries to salvage the economy.

18 Nov

Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.

Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.” 

Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.

One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.

Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.

And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.

If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent. 

Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.

Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that illicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.

Anthony Mangnall: How the Prime Minister can make British overseas aid spending more effective

13 Nov

Anthony Mangnall is MP for Totnes. His new report on Global Britain and Development for the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs is available here.

There is a great deal to welcome about the election of President-Elect Joe Biden. After four years of scandal, trade wars, and denigration of international institutions, we can look forward with a greater degree of certainty and comfort as a resurgent America restores its commitment to global leadership.

Biden was elected on a platform which puts social justice at the heart of his foreign policy. He has committed to returning America to a government-wide focus on uplifting the rights of women and girls, both at home and abroad. Moreover, as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, I am delighted that Biden has included tackling gender-based violence internationally a key tenet of his foreign policy priorities.

In the United Kingdom, Biden will find a staunch ally of his proposed humanitarian programme. Britain is an international development superpower, one of only a handful of countries to meet the OECD target of spending 0.7 per cent of income on aid, with a proud record of supporting the world’s poorest.

Since 2015, as a direct result of the 0.7 per cent target, the UK has helped almost 52 million people access clean water or improved sanitation, vaccinated 76 million children, and provided 14 million children with a decent education.

The vast majority of us within the rank and file of the Conservative Party recognise the significant, important, and essential work carried out through our development budget. Leaving aside our moral duty to the world’s poorest, we recognise our aid spending pays for itself by tackling the root causes of expensive and intractable issues that directly impact our country, from conflict and terrorism to mass migration. We understand that aid is a core tenet of what modern compassionate conservativism is all about.

That said, it is fair to say that aid spending has not always been spent as effectively as it could have been. It is vital that our international development budget is targeted both to support those most in need and to deliver value for money for British taxpayers.

The recent decision to merge Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) affords us with an excellent opportunity to reinvigorate our approach to aid. To that end, supported by two former Foreign Secretaries amongst other colleagues in my party, I have produced a new report for the One Nation Caucus exploring the ways in which we can capitalise on the merger and deliver a more effective aid and development programme.

One of the most important aspects of our aid policy that we need to get right is the 0.7 per cent target. Speculation around the viability of the target has set hares running amongst those who have long understood the value of a Global Britain. But as outlined in a recent report by Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the annual target can mean projects are left with little time to spend their budgets, resulting in poor spending decisions.

While maintaining the target and our commitment to the world’s most vulnerable, we should reform how it operates. That is why our new report calls for a multi-year 0.7 per cent target, in order to remove artificial spending deadlines and provide the certainty needed to make long-term strategic decisions.

Turning to the policies of the new FCDO, the widespread cases of gender-based violence, both at home and abroad, should be a clear indicator that empowerment of women must be at the very top of the new department’s priorities. As outlined in our report, the Government should create an international mechanism to document crimes of sexual violence, support survivors, and lead legal action so as to shatter the culture of impunity.

Taking inspiration from Biden’s call for reimagining existing foreign partnerships and designing new frameworks, our new report also calls on the Government to push for further reform of OECD rules to allow greater spending on peacekeeping missions. The UK could also convene a meeting of nations with a commonality of purpose in aid and development to better co-ordinate our aid strategies and outcomes. For example, a CANZUK consensus on how and where to spend aid would lock in respective development spending commitments, develop international cooperation, and improve outcomes.

Many of us in the Conservative Party still refer to the ‘golden thread’ theory of international development; that you only get real long-term development through aid if there is also a golden thread of stable government, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. By adopting some of the proposals in the One Nation Caucus’ new paper, the Government can recast this golden thread into a golden rod that breaks the vicious cycles of poverty, conflict and impunity.