In 2015 Britain promised to commit 0.7% of its gross national income to aid for the world’s poorest countries. Yesterday parliament broke that promise for the long-term, slashing foreign aid by £4bn a year for the foreseeable future.
Ministers and the Treasury have pitched the move as a necessity to cover the groaning pandemic debt but reports suggest the growing discomfort among rebel backbenchers may have led them to pair that plea with more underhand tactics.
After the aid cuts were announced in November last year, the prime minister gave Conservative rebels personal assurances that they wouldn’t last more than one or two years. But the canny among them weren’t all that convinced and last month 30 rebels supported an amendment to a parliamentary bill that would force the issue again.
Johnson says these cuts will be temporary and that a return to 0.7% is a matter of when, not if. He has, however, attached stringent fiscal conditions which former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell says it’s “quite possible” may “never be met”.
In the end the motion was passed by 333 to 298, and while not enough to restore the aid settlement that is still the largest rebellion this government has seen.
For many onlookers it’s nothing short of a humanitarian disaster and the response has been scathing.
The steep drop in support will strip cash from the world’s poorest communities and drain programmes working on malnutrition, education and lifting people out of poverty.
Former prime minister Theresa May told the chamber she didn’t relish rebelling but that this vote would mean “fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry, and more of the poorest people in the world will die”.
A coalition of charities, campaigners and church leaders have voiced their despair at the plans, some saying it is “akin cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain”.
This latest upset also lands at an unfortunate time for the government. This week alone they’re fighting their second battle against the perception of callousness.
After the home secretary was criticised by footballer Tyrone Mings for inflaming racial tensions, Number 10 walked back plans to host a reception at Downing Street for the England team later this week. Presumably, they didn’t want to come?
This is about how ‘Global Britain’ wants to project itself on the world stage and what it states its priorities to be. The ripple of this decision will undoubtedly be felt the world over for decades to come and as John Major put it, “cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world” has the “stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”.