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Now more than ever Britain must demonstrate world leadership - cutting our foreign aid budget won’t do that

Now more than ever Britain must demonstrate world leadership - cutting our foreign aid budget won’t do that

Now is not the time to consider cutting our international aid budget, write Mark Garnier MP and Baroness Jenkin. | PA Images

Mark Garnier and Baroness Jenkin

5 min read

Helping developing nations with their Covid vaccination programme is as important as vaccinating Britain, but we won't achieve it by cutting our foreign aid budget for short term domestic gain.

The UK is emerging from four decades in the EU, and a year in transition, to be released into the world, as a free trading, truly global Britain. Our timing could not have been worse. Far from being a confident Britain taking our independent place in the growing global economy, we are Covid battle scarred and dealing with depleted public finances.

It is inevitable that we look carefully at our public finances and re-evaluate our priorities. After all, if we are to be match ready for the global challenge ahead, we need to be as fit as possible.

Our £15 billion overseas development budget is coming under scrutiny. You can understand why. In addition to the natural cut as a result of our shrinking economy, there is talk of cutting aid spend to 0.5% of GDP. Why should we continue to send money to other parts of the world, when we need it at home?

The answer is threefold.

The first is about our nation’s place in the world. We are a proud, global nation – a nation that has done a huge amount of good in the world.

How we continue to be seen on the global stage will be determined by how we behave from the 1st January. We will be re-establishing our relationship with our friends the EU, but we will be forging a new relationship with all the multilateral organisations that make up the global rules-based order and beyond. The World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the UN, NATO, The World Bank and, of course, the OECD and DAC.

Is now the time to step back from our roles, or to lean into them? Do we want to be a passenger on these organisations or shape their future as a thought leader? Now, surely more than ever, is the time to demonstrate our commitment to the globe and how we see ourselves in it.

Getting the UK back on track once and for all needs the world to get back on track

Indeed, next year not only heralds our independence from the EU, it also brings our chair of the G7, our hosting of COP26, and a key education conference, announced last month, where we will be pushing hard for the world’s children to get an education.

Will our global leadership be enhanced by balancing our first world public finances on the backs of the world’s poorest? Will we meet our desire to educate the world – especially girls – out of poverty be achieved with a smaller budget? Leading an organisation like the G7 industrialised nations is as much about setting an example as it is about talking.

The second reason is self-interest. Covid is not a UK problem: it is a truly global pandemic. Getting the UK back on track once and for all needs the world to get back on track.

We have gone through lockdowns, track and trace, people’s lifetimes’ work challenged and strained, personal trauma and family tragedy, and run up a colossal debt for a future generation, all in the hope that we can get back to normal as soon as possible.

All this would be in vain if a visitor from a country that is behind us in supressing R simply reinfects our, hopefully, partially inoculated citizens. For us to be sure Covid is once and for all crushed, we need to help developing nations with their inoculation programme as much as we need to help our own nation. Cutting the budget to deliver that help is not a smart thing to do. If we trim our overseas aid budget for a short term domestic gain at a long term international cost, then our saving will have been in vain.

And we must never forget: Covid hits the poorest the hardest.

The third reason is both self interest and practicality. Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell MP, in his private members bill last week, made the case for replacing all those health professionals we poach from developing nations. For whatever reason, we don’t seem able to train enough doctors or nurses from our domestic resources to meet our need for the NHS. Whilst we lament the loss of expensively trained British doctors to places like Australia, so too do other nations resent their losses to the UK.

These nations need their healthcare professionals in the same way we do. Andrew Mitchell argues that we should replace those nurses and doctors not on a one for one basis, but on a two for one ratio. For each anaesthetist we recruit from, for example, Bangladesh, we should pay for the training of two more in Bangladesh.

Whatever the minutiae of ratios, the principle is sound. Our own self-interest means we have a resource of trained medical professionals whilst ensuring developing nations achieve ever increasing health outcomes. That’s less pressure on the NHS from multiple viewpoints.

Now is not the time to consider cutting our international aid budget. Our Prime Minister, when announcing the merger of DfID with the FCO, said we need to be looking to spend this money with our nation’s interests at heart. He is right, and that is why we must lean into the challenge, take responsibility for our place in the world, and demonstrate we are a world leader.


Mark Garnier is the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest and Baroness Jenkin is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. They are co-chairs of Conservative Friends of International Development.

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