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If the UK cuts aid to Syria the consequences will be catastrophic

4 min read

The Syria conference is a chance for the government to learn from its mistakes, or risk deadly consequences for desperate people and an increasingly diminished global Britain.

The recent leak from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office detailing the proposed size of humanitarian assistance cuts in Syria, Libya, Somalia should be a cause for grave concern. The plans to slash aid to these three countries by over 60% apiece are misplaced and undercut the UK’s ability to lead the world as an ‘international development superpower.’

The leak has been greeted with dismay by backbenchers, unease by non-governmental organisations and disdain by senior officials – who presumably leaked it – in the Foreign Office.

With the government having made a 59% cut in aid to Yemen before these reports broke, our assistance to Syria will be the next to have its fate confirmed. The UK is set to announce its spending for the year ahead at next week’s conference of donors on Syria.

Ten years since the start of the country’s bloody civil war, an estimated half a million people have been killed, and millions have been forced from their homes. The UK government’s assessment is that 13.4 million people who remain in the country require humanitarian assistance. Save the Children, which works in the country, estimate that a 67% cut to UK aid there could remove education from 350,000 children, leaving over 115,000 mothers and children under the age of five without nutrition support and providing 1.9 million fewer medical consultations, amongst reduced support in a host of other areas.

In the face of a global pandemic the example we’re setting is to retreat when we are needed most

The Syria conference is an opportunity for the government to change course. Their cut in support for Yemen was met with genuine shock – many of my colleagues thought that major humanitarian crises would be spared even as the government abandons the 0.7% commitment. But in the face of unimaginable need, the UK has decided to do less to help.

I hope, if nothing else, that this moment will serve as a wakeup call to ministers. We do not need to make this mistake again. The government must uphold its support to Syria, or the consequences will be catastrophic for people a decade into a living hell.

The UK’s narrative that boasts about our commitment to the world’s poorest now hangs in the balance, and the recently published Integrated Review was a stark reminder that our actions no longer match our words. Countries to which we have provided aid are now unsure about the long-term viability of their projects. In asking others to contribute to climate finance ahead of COP26, or to global education funding as we host the Global Partnership for Education’s replenishment in the summer, we are seen to be saying one thing but doing another. President Biden talks about basing foreign policy “not only in the example of our power, but in the power of our example”.  In the face of a global pandemic the example we’re setting is to retreat when we are needed most.

The proposed cut of our official development assistance budget from 0.7% to 0.5% is likely to have long and short-term consequences, both for recipient countries and for our own security and international influence. To view international aid in purely financial terms is to miss its entire purpose.

Our commitment to meet the 0.7% target has seen the UK run vaccination programmes, provide humanitarian assistance in conflict and crises zones, and roll out deradicalization programmes. Our aid spending provides a lifeline for those most in need, reminding the world that Britain is a force for good. The spending almost certainly offsets greater costs and conflicts that might otherwise arise without our assistance.

As it stands, the cut is only a proposed one and it is not too late for the government to revaluate their position. Maintaining the 0.7% shows not only our commitment to the international community to fulfil our obligations but also provides us with a platform to provide genuine global leadership.

The conference on Syria will be the next test for the government, and they must learn from their mistakes or risk deadly consequences for desperate people, and an increasingly diminished Britain on the world stage.


Anthony Mangnall is the Conservative MP for Totnes.

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