Boris Johnson has cut the UK’s foreign aid budget. Was he right to do so?
How much goes on foreign aid now?
About £14.5bn last year, almost all to Africa and Asia. That’s 0.7% of our GDP, a target level set by the UN in 1970 and enshrined in UK law under David Cameron in 2015. (The former PM apparently thought ring-fencing foreign spending would help the Tories to shed their “nasty party” image.) But last year Boris Johnson’s government announced that, because of the strain the pandemic has placed on the nation’s finances, it was cutting overseas spending to 0.5% of GDP – meaning we’ll spend £4.5bn less this year than we did in 2020. The move has been fiercely opposed by aid groups, all five living former prime ministers and dozens of Tory backbenchers, who tried without success to rebel against the plan this month. But Johnson appears unmoved. He once mocked the Department for International Development, the ministry previously responsible for distributing foreign aid, as a “giant cashpoint in the sky”.
Is that a fair description?
The tabloids have certainly enjoyed ridiculing some of the projects the UK has funded over the years, from an all-female pop group dubbed Ethiopia’s Spice Girls to yoga therapy in India, weight-loss schemes in Peru and juggling lessons in Tanzania. In 2016 a British think tank received £23,000 of taxpayers’ money for writing a two-page policy brief. Perhaps more worrying, earlier this year World Bank economists found that as much as one sixth of aid payments flow straight from the recipient countries to tax havens such as Switzerland. All of which fits the British development economist Peter Bauer’s description of foreign aid: “Poor people in rich countries are taxed to support the lifestyles of rich people in poor countries.”
But surely not all the money is wasted?
Not at all. Most of it goes not on girl bands, but on infrastructure development and projects to manage climate change. About £1.4bn of the UK’s 2019 foreign aid went on health projects, including medical research, family planning and infectious disease control – contributions that over the years have made a big difference in the fights against Aids, Malaria and TB. A further £1.5bn of the 2019 total went on humanitarian assistance in places struggling with conflict and natural disasters – mostly Yemen, Syria and Bangladesh.
Does the UK get anything in return?
Some spending, known as “conditional” or “tied” aid, has conditions attached: a trade deal, say. But in most cases the benefits are less direct. In the long term, helping poor countries escape poverty makes their people more likely (one day) to visit Britain and become consumers of our products. In the shorter term, the foreign aid budget is a key component of “soft power” – the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce. Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee in the Commons, describes Britain as a “soft superpower” – an exemplar for other countries, many of which follow our lead when deciding where to concentrate their aid money. Only a handful of other nations, including Germany, Norway and Sweden, hit the 0.7% foreign aid target. “The work we do in this space,” says Ellwood, “is arguably why we are able to justify our seat on the UN security council.”
How much “soft power” would be lost by cutting aid?
Hard to say, but Ellwood argues that any country feeling abandoned by the UK will find other willing benefactors – “most likely China”. Beijing has embarked on a huge soft-power campaign across Asia, Africa and South America, showering countries with loans and grants in exchange for development rights and influence. It would undoubtedly be eager to snap up any further ground ceded by London. More broadly, says Bloomberg columnist Mihir Sharma, cutting foreign aid doesn’t do much to help Boris Johnson’s argument that Brexit will lead to a “Global Britain”.
Development assistance, says Sharma, is “literally the only geopolitical field in which Brexiting Britain can stand toe-to-toe with the US or the EU”. Britannia – in the form of the British Navy – no longer rules the waves. For growing economies in Asia, the UK is an important trading partner, but by no means the biggest. That is the strongest case for maintaining foreign aid levels: “Only in the world of development does Britain remain globally relevant. Britain is not now and never will again be a superpower in any other way.”