UK Cuts Foreign Aid Budget Amid Opposition From Former PMs

November 25, 2020 Updated: November 25, 2020

The UK will reduce its spending on foreign aid next year, Finance Minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed on Wednesday.

The move came amid opposing voices from several former Prime Ministers, although a poll showed that 60 percent people thought the UK had been spending too much on overseas aid.

While delivering his Spending Review, Sunak told Parliament that the UK will spend the equivalent of 0.5 percent of Britain’s National Gross Income on overseas aid in 2021, allocating £10 billion ($13.34 billion) at this Spending Review.

Sunak said the government intends to return to its 0.7 percent target when the fiscal situation allows.

“This country has always and will always be open and outward-looking, leading in solving the world’s toughest problems,” Sunak said.

“But during a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7 percent of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people, especially when we’re seeing the highest peacetime levels of borrowing on record,” Sunak said, in response to opposing voices including those of several former PMs.

“I have listened with great respect to those who have argued passionately to retain this target. But at a time of unprecedented crisis government must make tough choices.”

Sunak said that according to data from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the reduced size of overseas aid will still put the UK at the second highest among G7 donors, and above 29 countries on the OECD’s development assistance committee.

Former PMs Opposed the Move

Several former UK prime ministers have voiced their concerns when reports said the aid cut was part of the Spending Review.

David Cameron Gordon Brown Tony Blair John Major
(L-R) Former Prime Ministers David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major lays a wreath at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in central London, on Nov. 10, 2019. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

John Major told The Times that he thought cutting aid is both wrong and unwise.

“Cutting our overseas aid is morally wrong and politically unwise. It breaks our word and damages our soft power. Above all, it will hurt many of the poorest people in the world,” he said. “I cannot and do not support it.”

David Cameron said while he completely understood the need to control spending, but abandoning the 0.7 percent target would be a “moral, strategic, and political mistake,” he told The Telegraph in a joint statement with Tony Blair.

“Moral, because we should be keeping our promises to the world’s poorest, not breaking them. A strategic error, because we would be signalling retreat from one of the UK’s vital acts of global leadership. And a political mistake because the UK is about to chair the G7 and important climate change negotiations.”

Blair said British foreign aid has saved millions of lives.

“People always highlight the cases of abuse of aid to discredit the whole notion of it. But over the past 20 years, the British commitment of 0.7 percent has done the following,” Blair said.

“It has helped cut the deaths from killer diseases—malaria, HIV, and others—on the continent of Africa, measured literally in millions of lives. … raised life expectancy dramatically. Educated better many millions more children. Created stability and assisted development, which has seen investment and living standards rise to levels not experienced before.”

Blair added that foreign aid is not about charity, but about enlightened self-interest.

“This has been a great British soft power achievement. It isn’t about charity. It’s enlightened self-interest. Neither the challenge of climate or coronavirus can be met without Africa. Nor can those of extremism and uncontrolled immigration. To change it is a profound strategic mistake, and I sincerely hope the Government will not do it.”

The reports of the possible aid cut came amid a £24.1 billion ($31.8 billion) boost in military spending.

Gordon Brown told Kay Burley from Sky News that the government promised during its election campaign both to sort out defense and meet the UK’s commitments to NATO, and to maintain foreign aid.

“It would be a terrible thing that you break one promise to honor the other promise, particularly when we have one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in the rest of the world, that will hit our shores if we do not nothing about it. ”

Sunak: We Shouldn’t Judge UK’s Standing Just By Money

Overseas aid is only one of the ways the UK plays its role in the world, Sunak said.

The chancellor said the recent military spending boost allows the UK to provide security around the world as well as the UK itself, and that the government is investing more in the UK’s diplomatic network, and funding new trade deals.

“We should, however, judge our standing in the world not just by the money we spend but by the causes we advance and the values we defend,” Sunak said.

Job Centre Plus
A person wearing a protective face mask walks past a Job Centre Plus office, amidst the outbreak of the CCP virus disease (COVID-19) in London, on Aug. 11, 2020. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

A recent YouGov poll asking people what sector was the UK government spending too much on showed that 60 percent of pollsters thought the government has been spending too much on foreign aid.

“The Britain I would like us to be would do much more to ensure that it’s [sic] foreign aid goes overwhelmingly to the world’s poorest and is not squandered on vanity projects, waste, and consultants,” Andrew Neil, chairman of the Spectator, wrote on Twitter.

Sunak said that the UK is in an economic emergency, as he laid out the impact of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

“The UK is forecast to borrow a total of £394 billion [$526 billion] this year, equivalent to 19 percent of GDP, the highest recorded level of borrowing in our peacetime history,” Sunak told Parliament.

The underlying debt is forecasted to be 91.9 percent of GDP, and continuously rising every year, reaching 97.5 percent of GDP in 2015.

Sunak said the situation is clearly unsustainable over the medium term.