Britain started 2020 as a development superpower but will end 2021 having failed to deliver on the global stage
The Chancellor is a man of his word and has now given a clear commitment that Britain will return to 0.7 per cent GNI for aid spending by 2024. This commitment is welcome and is far clearer than what he proposed in July, when 26 of my Conservative colleagues joined me in voting against his motion in the House of Commons.
At that stage, we worried that the imprecision of the fiscal criteria he put forward amounted to little more than a fiscal trap. The Chancellor, to his great credit, acknowledged our concerns in his statement from the Dispatch Box on Wednesday and named the date when he will return to the 0.7 per cent. But concerns remain.
Many of my colleagues, including two former chair’s of the Public Accounts Committee, rightly criticised the government a year ago for proposing the cut to 0.5 per cent at the same time as GNI had contracted due to the pandemic. They argued, as they had done in 2013 when the Conservative government first met the commitment, that a cut (or indeed an increase) of any public expenditure budget by a third, would not represent value for money. And they have been proved right.
Turning the tap on and off in this way is bad value for money and devastating for the most desperate people on the planet
Clinics offering women modern forms of contraception have been closed. Girls promised 12 years of education have seen their teachers sacked and their schools closed. And humanitarian crises, such as the famine in Yemen, have had such deep cuts that food has literally been taken from the plates of starving children. It is nonsensical to cut this year, only to restore that cut in three years.
The Chancellor, and indeed the Prime Minister, must ensure that the error they imposed on Dominic Raab’s FCDO is not compounded by the settlement they have imposed Liz Truss. She will be forced to make another three years of cuts because of the way the Treasury has chosen to account for the Special Drawing Rights given to Britain by the International Monetary Fund and that Britain has rightly chosen to recycle to the poorest countries in the world. At the same time, surplus Covid vaccine doses are going to be counted as well, forcing the Foreign Secretary to make another round of cuts to Britain’s aid programmes.
It would be far more efficient and effective to treat the 0.5 per cent as a floor, not as a celling, and to allow the aid budget to be restored gradually over the next three years. Turning the tap on and off in this way is bad value for money, for the British tax payer and devastating for the most desperate people on the planet.
These Treasury accounting decisions have real world consequences. The night before the Spending Review, families across the country were shocked by a report leading the BBC News: of a family in Afghanistan who had sold their baby in order to feed their other children. The same report explained that another family were left grieving after losing eight children to starvation. Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Britain has always punched above its weight. We started 2020 as a development superpower. But we will end 2021 having failed to deliver on the global stage. The G7 summit failed to secure the step change needed in vaccine sharing and the COP26 climate summit currently looks doomed because the necessary finance has not been secured to unlock the level of ambition necessary.
The Spending Review contained many welcome commitments. But the departmental settlement imposed on Liz Truss, in the words of another Foreign Secretary, is rather like sending your opening batsman to the crease, only for them to find as the first ball is being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.
Andrew Mitchell is the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, former International Development Secretary and author of Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey.
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