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Government must prevent UK aid cuts from pushing the world’s most vulnerable into poverty and food insecurity

We heard how 14 million Yemenis did not even know where their next meal is coming from, writes Sarah Champion MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Addressing the secondary impacts of Covid are just as important as stopping the virus itself. Government must outline how we can ensure the world’s most vulnerable are not left behind.

The International Development Committee has had a busy week.

On Tuesday, we published our latest report considering the secondary impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which threaten the development progress and humanitarian gains of recent decades. We then had a timely evidence session with the Foreign Secretary, particularly given the hastily published allocations of aid spending per Government department, showing large cuts compared to previous years.

Within the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, extraordinary development progress has been made; from healthcare to economic development, education to gender equality.

But our Committee fears the secondary impacts of coronavirus are likely to be the undoing of these improvements as recent gains are swamped by deferred need, postponed projects and interrupted programmes.

During the inquiry we heard that healthcare resources being re-allocated to the covid-19 battle and hospitals are at breaking point. We heard of widespread disruption to routine immunisations: at least 80 million children under the age of one risk missing out on vaccines for diseases such as measles, polio and diphtheria. Despite the massive progress made in fighting HIV/AIDS, we heard that 11.5 million people had anti-retroviral services disrupted.

It became very apparent that when faced with a pandemic on the scale of Covid-19, healthcare services have been unable to cope. Postponing routine immunisations, disrupting life-saving services represents a ticking timebomb in developing countries. A resilient, global healthcare strategy that can adapt to these challenges is urgently needed.

Given the risk of these scenarios setting back humanitarian progress, it is imperative that a comprehensive aid strategy is developed

Meanwhile, with national economies around the world taking a massive hit with successive lockdowns, developing nations with fragile economies are feeling it most. Many governments are incurring astronomical debt. While bodies such as the IMF are suspending debt repayments, my Committee is asking the government why we cannot consider cancelling some of this burden for the poorest countries, not least as debt a ripple effect on how a government funds its vital social services and healthcare.

What struck me during our inquiry was the worries of parents about how they will feed their families. Unemployment is rocketing and supply chains in agriculture are dislocated leaving produce in short supply. Oxfam told us that people expected to die from hunger before Covid, and the UN predicts 132 million more people could suffer from chronic food insecurity in 2020. We heard how 14 million Yemenis did not even know where their next meal is coming from.

Irrespective of a global pandemic, and wealthy countries justifying aid cuts due to struggling economic outlooks, we should not tolerate a world where so many are left to go hungry.

We are also witnessing a shadow pandemic with coronavirus – the disproportionate impacts on women and girls.

Girls are very sadly less likely to return to education following school closures, with a lack of money in households leading to parents prioritising sending sons back to fee-paying schools rather than girls. As a result, many girls will be stuck at home. This is potentially very dangerous, with estimates suggesting that there could be an additional two million cases of female genital mutilation, an additional 13 million child marriages by 2030 and an increase in child trafficking. 

We cannot go back to square one on gender equality. The government must commit to embedding gender equality within all its programmes and publish annual assessments of aid funded programmes with the data to show it is on track.

During our evidence session, the Foreign Secretary acknowledged the secondary impacts of coronavirus will be severe. Given the risk of these scenarios setting back humanitarian progress, it is imperative that a comprehensive aid strategy is developed collaboratively, consulted on and published. Particularly with the reduction in ODA down to 0.5% of GNI, it is imperative that the government outlines how we can ensure the world’s most vulnerable are not left behind.

My Committee will be delving deeper into these cuts and what they mean, particularly during a global pandemic. The need to adapt to rising secondary risks – that are keeping some of the world’s most vulnerable people hungry all day and in fear all night – are just as important as stopping transmission of the virus itself.


Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Committee.

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