Professor Ian Linden, a Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University in London and a past director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, has launched a scathing attack on the government’s decision to cut the overseas aid budget by millions.
His criticism, coming just days before the government entertains world leaders at the G7 Summit, at which overseas aid is likely to be a key topic, will be a major embarrassment for Boris Johnson.
Professor Linden, who has also previously been an adviser on Justice and Peace issues to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the foreign aid cut was “shameful”, particularly as it was driven by a desire to placate Tory backbenchers for whom “charity begins at home…and ends there.”
The UK’s reduced aid target of 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) “is particularly damaging in the midst of a pandemic,” said the professor, pointing out that three countries in which he has worked extensively over the years on malaria programmes, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Malawi, has vaccinated just eight, nine and 17.5 people per thousand respectively against Covid-19.
“These low figures almost guarantee new and more dangerous mutations will flourish – and they won’t stay in Africa,” he warns.
He also pointed out that despite the government’s entreaties that this is a one-off cut, the aid budget had already fallen as it is linked to UK GNI, which has already fallen sharply due to Covid-19.
He believes the poorest nations had already lost out on over £6 billion of UK funding before the aid was officially cut.
He added: “Insufficient time and thought has been given to which beneficiaries, countries and categories of programmes would face reductions, and their consequences.
“From March to December 2020, £1.39 billion of British aid was spent on anti-COVID measures around the world. You might have thought that in the midst of a pandemic, funding for the rest of the health sector in the poorest countries would be carefully protected. But the cuts hastily introduced this year damage programmes against malaria, polio and HIV and, most importantly, will affect public health systems which prevent and control disease, including Covid.”
“The Victorians were smart enough to work out that parsimony and indifference to the health of the poor was a bad idea. Cholera and other infectious diseases, they realised, jumped class barriers and borders. This simple observation applied globally does not seem to have fully penetrated the Johnson government’s policy though.”
Just saying the UK will provide “Covid equipment, PPE, oxygen, ICUs and so on will make only a marginal difference if the recipients in a local health system are badly organised, corruptly managed or even barely functioning.
“And here is the Achilles’ heel of government-to-government funding. It might provide good copy for the right-wing press and clear the consciences of voters who support cuts in aid. But if the government clinic is not properly funded, the nurses and doctors poorly trained or doing two jobs, and the clinic has no drugs or equipment that works, it is to little avail. Corruption and poor governance kills. Sensitive interventions in the management of ministries can and do make a difference and must continue.”
He warned that the government is also covertly dipping into development aid spending for services provided by other Departments of State. While COVAX spending for Covid vaccines is appropriately taken from the aid budget, spending on peacekeeping should come out of the UK defence budget and for climate change out of Business and Energy – not out of development aid, as will now happen.
“And all such assistance in our interconnected world should be considered as a security measure if the term is to have much meaning. FCO/DfID needs to learn from the COVID pandemic and focus on funding for health and education. This year’s cut of £4 billion should be reversed immediately.”
He added that MP Andrew Mitchell, former Secretary of State for International Development, “knows what a shameful, short-sighted and damaging step the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are taking. MPs who think like Mitchell should stand up and, like him, be counted.”