The Conservative politician Andrew Mitchell was ahead of his time 12 years ago when he travelled the world extolling the benefits of development aid.
With a grey shock of schoolboy hair and a military officer’s manner, Mr Mitchell was equally happy commandeering private planes and piling into regular economy, as he travelled from Rwanda to Eritrea to Pakistan with a missionary zeal. When the Labour government lost power in 2010, Mr Mitchell was made international development secretary and drove home his message that prosperity should not be built on the back of the world’s poorest. He ensured that the UK was not only the first G7 country to meet the 0.7 per cent of GDP target for international aid spending – set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – but also made sure that the figure was put in law.
Now a senior statesman in his party, Mr Mitchell is dismayed that the UK has reversed its policy.
The onset of the pandemic and its hit to the government's finances spurred a change of heart from Boris Johnson's administration. As GDP suffered a double-digit percentage point drop, the aid budget was cut back. The cabinet reduced the annual outlay from £14 billion to £10bn (from $19.3bn to $13.8bn) or 0.5 per cent of GDP. High-profile programmes that stretch around the world have been affected.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary and man in charge of the cuts, said the decisions were driven not only by needs assessments but also by “strategic considerations”. This has puzzled many.
The more than 80 per cent cut to UNAIDS, which looks after the concerns of the HIV positive in developing countries, drew a warning from the Geneva-based body that global health security would be damaged.
With polio on the brink of eradication, the 95 per cent slash in annual contributions to Global Polio Eradication Initiative looks cruel. The head of the charity Water Aid said the reductions in his sector were savage.
Party loyalty not withstanding, Mr Mitchell has said the decisions – which have not been formally announced by the government in detail – “shame us all”. He has pointed to an estimated 100,000 lives that could be lost from reductions in humanitarian spending. "We are cutting £500 million in humanitarian aid,” he told a parliamentary debate. “This will mean that three million women and children will not now receive life-saving support.”
The ramifications for countries on the brink such as Yemen and Syria are grave. As Mr Mitchell points out, it puts pressure on allies such as Jordan as well.
The list of government campaign priorities compromised by the decision is long. London says that global girls' education is one of its international priorities. Yet it is pushing through a two-fifths reduction of support for this stream that will result in a four million girls not accessing schools and all the life-changing advantages that decrees.
The headlines from this exercise matter this year more than ever. Britain is trying to rise from the ashes of its bitter Brexit from the EU. As a country, it had decided to use the platform of Global Britain to say it was open and outwardly engaged.
To prove it, the UK is hosting with Kenya a $5bn pledging conference for global education this summer. It is also the president of the G7, the grouping of top economies that seek to provide leadership out of the pandemic and the tailwinds of the trade wars between leading countries. Then in November, the UK plans to host the Cop26 climate change conference.
These are all major platforms to show leadership and persuade other countries to sign up to tough pledges.
The task for Mr Raab is made harder by the cuts. How can he go into the office of a South-Pacific island's president, who has seen his country cut out of development aid, and make the case for more sacrifices?
Proponents of the cuts make two cynical arguments.
One is that criticism is mainly coming from a bloated and self-interested aid sector that does not like the easy money drying up. The second argument is that the £4bn is not a globally significant sum, particularly as other countries have announced increases in development aid that are more than three times as big as the UK reductions.
But if France or Germany are rising to meet the 0.7 per cent target, that does not make the UK position easier. It represents a shift in soft power – and one that is not in the UK’s favour.
To compound the error, the recent Integrated Review of British security and foreign policy had much to say on the positioning of the middle-ranking power as a dynamic player around the world. Yet it glossed over the development aid cuts. If there was an inbuilt review mechanism in the Integrated Review, this omission would undoubtedly have been exposed. But there is not.
Not for the first time in recent political memory, London is accused of an act of self-harm. The only sliver of hope is that politicians such as Mr Mitchell, who are fighting the good fight, will eventually persuade their colleagues to see sense.
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National