Tories are opposing cuts to aid for wrong reasons

Tory opposition to foreign aid budget cuts reveals an exercise in self-interest
5 min read
02 Dec, 2020
Comment: Conservative opposition to Rishi Sunak's foreign aid cut has laid bare the distinctly unhumanitarian nature if its existence, writes Malia Bouattia.
Sunak's proposed cuts are likely to disproportionately impact girls and women globally [Getty]
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced last week that there will be a £4 billion cut to international aid because of major blows to the UK economy dealt by the Covid-19 pandemic.   

The decision has provoked furious opposition from both sides of the aisle. Not only would it go against the Tory manifesto, but it would also undo a law enshrined under David Cameron's government to commit at least 0.7 percent of Britain's gross national income to international development.

Conservative Foreign Office minister, Lady Sugg resigned in revolt, calling the decision "fundamentally wrong". In her resignation letter to Boris Johnson she wrote: "Given the link between our development spend and the health of our economy, the economic downturn has already led to significant cuts this year and I do not believe we should reduce our support further at a time of unprecedented global crises." 

Others from within the Conservative Party also echoed these concerns, including Jeremy Hunt, Pauline Latham, and David Cameron. The former Conservative international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell considers the move "outrageous" and stated that "up to 5.6 million fewer children won't get vaccinated, that could lead to up to 100,000 deaths."

Uproar and concern was also considerable across other political parties, among public figures, charities, and the development sector. With "biblical proportions" of famines expected by the UN in the spring, the plans put forward by the Johnson government - presumably not satisfied with the growing body count at home - will lead to even more poverty and death across the world. 

The country may be a leading donor globally, but it also profits considerably from the money and resources that it sends abroad

The cuts are also likely to disproportionately impact girls and women around the world. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who expressed her opposition to the decision warned that "Covid-19 could force 20 million more girls out of school" and the cuts to aid would be catastrophic. 

Action Against Hunger's executive director stated that, "we estimate that these cuts could see as many as 3 million women and children lose access to often life-saving nutrition services. Clinics will close, nurses will lose their jobs, and children will lose their lives." 

However, not everyone's opposition to the spending review followed the same reasoning. Tories did not hold back in making statements over how this would impact the status of Britain on the international stage. Jeremy Hunt said the cuts would make "us poorer in the eyes of the world", and MP Tobias Ellwood stated that it would undermine British influence, as well as "allow China and Russia to take advantage".

Even the chair of the international aid select committee, Sarah Champion MP, declared, "I think we can wave goodbye to the development superpower status that we have proudly had for so long." Those Conservatives perceived as taking a progressive line, are protecting their own political interests and their vision of a great Britain, influential across - if no longer ruling - the waves.

Read more: Malala Yousafzai calls on UK government not to cut foreign aid

While the cuts should be opposed, this also reveals the deep problems that surround the question of aid. The country may be a leading donor globally, but it also profits considerably from the money and resources that it sends abroad. Nothing, after all, is for free. 

The so-called donations continue to be used to "tame" poorer nations into obedience, and should they oppose the political agenda set out by the hand that feeds them, the money disappears - as the Trump administration has demonstrated repeatedly over the last four years.

The impacts of British imperialism, in pillaging and exploiting the lands and people they now "support" is another crucial fact that is intentionally overlooked when the state is required to justify its aid budget. As is its role in the political context of many Global South countries. Britain continues to destabilise regimes, exploit resources and support bloody dictators across the world - leaving their economies and their people in a vicious cycle of dependency on the developed West.

At times this cycle of hypocrisy becomes particularly nauseating. For example, this summer the Foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced a new package of £160 million in aid for Yemen, to respond to the ever growing humanitarian, sanitary, and health crises in the country. At the same time however, the British government continues to sell weapons to the Saudi regime, which is the prime cause of the Yemeni people's suffering - weapons which are used against an already starving population.

Aid, as is so often the case, is more a question of public relations and an attempt at mitigating the most horrific outcomes of Britain's foreign policy

Aid, as is so often the case, is more a question of public relations and an attempt at mitigating the most horrific outcomes of Britain's foreign policy.

As it stands, the far right, including Nigel Farage, is driving home the toxic narrative that given high levels of poverty and mass unemployment in the UK, the government shouldn't be concerned with feeding those abroad. For the likes of Farage, whipping up racism and xenophobia will always override the diplomatic ties and political power that the UK development industry provides. Those Tories who share the same sentiments, are clearly seeing the recession as the perfect opportunity to finally reduce the pot of aid. 

Perhaps social movements could make a proposal to the government. It can cut aid, if it also cuts weapon sales, intelligence and police training, and unequal trade deals with dictatorial and repressive regimes across the world.

We might put it as follows: Britain's ruling class can stop dealing with the consequences of international inequality, the day it stops feeding it and profiting in the process. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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