Significant cuts to our overseas aid budget have jeopardised efforts to eradicate HIV by 2030
Forty years on from the discovery of the first AIDS cases, this World AIDS Day should serve as a turning point in the global health response. It is a time to remember those we have lost to AIDS, show our support for those living with and affected by HIV, and to renew our commitment to ending AIDS by 2030.
We’ve come a long way in reducing cases, advancing treatments, and tackling stigma. I was proud to serve on the HIV Commission and am encouraged to see today the government build on our recommendations by publishing its HIV Action Plan. Whilst the Plan puts us on the track to end HIV transmissions in England & Wales by 2030, the global picture tells us we have a long way to go to make AIDS history.
Worldwide, 36.3 million have died of AIDS and today there are 37.7 million people living with HIV. The Covid-19 pandemic has created additional setbacks - for example, reports show that HIV testing fell by more than 40 per cent in clinics across Africa and Asia last year - but the global response was already off-track before this.
All of UNAIDS’ Global HIV targets were missed last year, with 1.5 million people having acquired HIV in 2020; triple what the target was supposed to be. After Covid-19, AIDS remains the leading killer of women of reproductive age.
For the government to commemorate World AIDS Day without recognising how cuts will exacerbate existing inequalities is hard to stomach
The UK should see this situation as a wake-up call and an opportunity for it to enhance its long-standing reputation as a reliable global partner.
Historically, the UK has been a strong leader in the HIV response, demonstrating the impact of what UK Aid can achieve. For example, the government’s contributions to the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has saved more than an estimated 3 million lives. Indeed, in 2019, the government exhibited ambitious and moral leadership by pledging £1.4bn to the Global Fund’s 6th replenishment. Yet recent government policy has seen the UK step away from its traditionally strong leadership on this issue.
A recent report from the APPG on HIV/AIDS, STOPAIDS and Frontline AIDS has highlighted the impact of UK government cuts to overseas spending on HIV and AIDS worldwide. The report paints a worrying picture of progress in jeopardy, out of step with our government’s rhetoric, commitments, and strong historic political and financial leadership. Cuts of over 80 per cent have been made to key multilateral organisations for the HIV response including UNAIDS, UNFPA, and Unitaid.
These cuts will undoubtedly affect the international community's ability to get the HIV response back on track, as well as disproportionately affect already marginalised communities.
For the government to commemorate World AIDS Day, that is calling for an end to inequalities, without recognising how its funding cuts will exacerbate existing inequalities is hard to stomach. In ending inequalities, it is more necessary than ever to build upon the UK’s renowned championing of human rights, not just in rhetoric and funding, but programmatically. This includes ensuring community-led responses to HIV are centred in our approach.
There is a further concern that the now-reduced overseas aid budget of 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) will be further watered-down by plans to include Special Drawing Rights, vaccine donations and debt relief as part of UK Aid. As an MP who opposed the initial reduction in overseas aid spending, it is my strong belief that this marks a significant further cut in real-terms that would further hamper our ability to respond to the global challenges we all face.
As with everything the UK does, our investment in ODA punches above its weight in what it delivers. Aid doesn’t stand alone but sits integrated with our national priorities. Our nation’s ambition to become a “science superpower” means stepping up to sufficiently fund key research and development in global health. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been heralded worldwide for its swift development and efficacy; increasing funding for the research and development of an HIV vaccine should follow.
By returning the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of GNI, the government can show it is serious not just about ending AIDS, but realising our ambitions across the world stage.
It is, however, most welcome that despite these significant cuts the government has maintained its funding commitment to the aforementioned Global Fund that it made at the fund’s sixth replenishment. Not only will this save countless lives, but the fund also strengthens health systems and pandemic preparedness. UK Aid contributions to the Global Fund last year alone supported over 1.5 million people to access HIV medication.
As World AIDS Day calls on us to end pandemics, the UK government must acknowledge the role the Global Fund has to play in achieving this objective and increase its contributions at the seventh replenishment, hosted by President Biden in 2022.
Ultimately, the tremendous impact of UK aid continues to be clear. I hope the government recognises this by meaningfully responding to the bold and necessary call to action of this World AIDS Day.
Steve Brine is the Conservative MP for Winchester and co-chair of the APPG on HIV/AIDS.
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