Aid cuts row shames UK as world leaders meet
Does foreign aid work? Today Boris Johnson is accused by his own party of causing hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths by cutting back on money given to the world’s poorest countries.
Most votes in the House of Commons are routine affairs. MPs from each party vote the way they are meant to and the government gets its way. But every so often, they decide not to follow the party line, hold firm against pressure from party whips and defeat the government.
That is what seemed likely to happen last night, as rebel Conservative MPs joined with opposition parties to back an amendment seeking to stop the government from cutting its foreign aid budget. The proposed cut would reduce aid from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5% – equating to around £4 billion a year.
In the end, the rebels were stopped by Speaker of the House Lindsay Hoyle, who ruled that there could not be a vote on the amendment. Instead, he proposed an emergency debate on the cut, to be held later today.
This showdown has been brewing since Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak first announced the cut in November 2020. The decision caused outrage among MPs from all parties, although polls suggest that two-thirds of the British public support it.
Now, MPs have spotted an opportunity to embarrass the government by forcing a vote on the issue shortly before the G7 is due to meet in the UK on Friday.
Even with the lower figure, Britain will be the G7’s second-most generous member. But rebels believe reducing its foreign aid budget at a time when other wealthy nations are increasing theirs will hurt the UK’s credibility.
Critics of the cut argue that it could result in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in the developing world. Others warn that if poorer countries can no longer rely on the UK for aid, they will turn to rival powers like China, reducing British influence.
The government insists that the cut is only a temporary measure, claiming it cannot afford to spend so much on foreign aid while the economy repairs after the pandemic.
The controversy has sparked a new debate over the effectiveness of foreign aid. Opponents of aid argue that, far from helping the countries that receive it, aid makes them dependent on Western countries.
Rich countries can use foreign aid to put political pressure on poor countries. In 2018, Donald Trump threatened to cut aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala if they did not halt the flow of refugees into the southern United States.
Half of all international aid is only given on the condition that the recipient nation must spend the money on goods and services from the donor nation. And sometimes, aid is given as a loan rather than a gift, meaning that the recipient nation has to pay interest on it.
But others argue that foreign aid is a lifeline to millions of people around the world. It is used to build schools, hospitals and sanitation systems which improve people’s lives and support economic development.
Does foreign aid work?
Aid or trade?
Yes, say some. While there are undoubtedly some abuses in the system, the vast majority of foreign aid is given in the form of vital resources: food, medical supplies, building materials. And it funds research into important areas like fighting infectious diseases. At a time when the world is recovering from the pandemic, funding these things is more important than ever.
Not at all, say others. Foreign aid is a scam that rich countries use to trap poor countries in a cycle of dependency and force them to do their bidding. Instead of giving foreign aid directly to corrupt bureaucrats, we should try to secure free and fair trade with poorer countries, so that their economies can develop and provide for their own citizens.
- Do rich countries have a moral duty to help the people of poorer countries?
- Many rich countries try to use their foreign aid to further their own interests. Does this make aid less effective, or is it a necessary evil?
- In a small group, come up with a name and mission statement for a charity working overseas. Then design a fundraising poster for your charity.
- Divide the class in two and select one person to be prime minister, another to be leader of the opposition and a third to be speaker of the house. Then run a parliamentary debate on the question of whether or not foreign aid should be cut to 0.5% of GNI.
Some People Say...
“While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013), Nigerian novelist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that the charity sector has somewhat discredited itself in recent years. In 2018, Oxfam was roundly criticised for trying to cover up evidence that following the earthquake in Haiti seven years before, some of its workers had used the charity’s funding – partly paid for by the foreign aid budget – to exploit local people. The scandal revealed similar exploitation endemic in development charities, yet there was no major reform.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over whether trade is any better than aid for securing long-term development. Supporters of free trade argue that it allows poorer countries, which produce cheaper goods, to compete with richer ones. But opponents claim it just entrenches the imbalance between rich and poor. Poor countries generally export raw materials that rich countries turn into goods to sell back for a much higher price.
- House of Commons
- The elected chamber of the UK Parliament.
- MPs whose role is to ensure that other MPs in their party vote according to the party’s instructions.
- Political parties can usually rely on all or most of their MPs to vote the way they ask on major issues. When a large number of MPs defy their party’s orders, this is known as a rebellion.
- Stands for “Gross National Income”. The UN recommends that wealthy countries should spend a sum equivalent to 0.7% of their GNI on foreign aid, so that richer countries pay more.
- Speaker of the House
- An independent MP elected to manage proceedings in the Commons. They moderate many of its debates.
- Emergency debate
- A special debate on a controversial issue.
- Chancellor of the Exchequer
- The minister in charge of government spending. It is a very senior role and many chancellors go on to become prime minister.
- A group of seven developed countries that collaborate on economic policy: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA.
- China’s critics assert it is funding development projects in the developing world to buy influence with the governments of poorer countries and further its own economic interests.
- An interest rate is a percentage charged on money borrowed that has to be paid when the loan is repaid.