‘Brutal, dark and horrible’: foreign aid cuts will blight Britain while a generation overseas suffers

Opposition MP Sarah Champion says 'short-sighted' policy will damage UK's reputation

20 February 2021, Lebanon, Marj: A Syrian refugee flushes rain water outside her tent following heavy rain, at Marj Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Syrian refugees have been affected by heavy rain and snow, high winds, and frigid temperatures that have hit Lebanon. Photo: Marwan Naamani/dpa (Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Sarah Champion has never shied away from stating things as she sees in a forthright manner and has come to expect her words to make a difference.

So when the Labour politician tells The National that Britain's controversial cuts to its overseas aid budget will have "untold consequences", diminishing its international reputation while harming the world's poorest, the government would do well to pay attention.

As a parliamentary committee chairwoman, Ms Champion is currently putting the people overseeing the aid reduction under pressure. Most recently, she led two hours of sustained questioning of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab over the £4 billion ($5.53bn) he is extracting from Britain’s international development budget.

The picture she paints makes the 30 per cent annual reduction look like an act of political folly. A steady drip of even more galling statistics – such as a 95 per cent drop in funds for polio reduction – is inviting widespread condemnation of the government.

Like several developed countries, Britain previously adhered to the international agreement to contribute 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product to overseas aid, and enshrined it in law with the ruling Conservative Party also making it a manifesto pledge.

Aid was already reduced as a result of economic crisis caused by the pandemic, but last summer the government announced the budget would drop to 0.5 per cent of GDP – a reduction from £14bn to £10bn.

“You have to see this as an extraordinary act of self-harm that is really, really undermining the Conservatives’ reputation,” Ms Champion says. “To be cutting our soft power is going to have untold consequences, especially during a pandemic.”

The vision in which the post-Brexit UK would become a force for good in the world under the slogan of Global Britain could not, in Ms Champion’s view, be a “less appropriate tagline” – she says the cuts are more attuned to the parochial politics of "Little Britain".

Some of her opponents have listened before. In 2015, the Conservative government turned her Private Members’ Bill into law, forcing companies of more than 250 people to publish their pay gap between men and women.

As chairwoman of the Commons’ International Development Committee and after a decade-long parliamentary career during which she has picked up many global contacts, she has first-hand accounts of the effects of the aid reduction.

“When the budget cuts were announced, a politician friend in Jamaica texted me and said: ‘Why on earth would we do a trade deal with you when China is offering us the same trade deal, and they give us stuff too?’”

Ms Champion was told that NGOs in Syria have already shut medical and educational facilities and made staff redundant, an education project in Uganda closed and a disability project ended in Lebanon.

“They had to let staff go … they couldn't maintain the commitment because their funding agreements this financial year haven't been secured,” she says.

Quote
They haven't cut their desire to educate 40 million girls but you can't cut 25 per cent of the budget and keep the same target

Ms Champion was formerly Labour’s shadow secretary for women and equalities and as her equal pay bill demonstrated, is a vehement advocate of female advancement.

During questioning last week, Mr Raab insisted that Britain’s aid would continue to assist 40 million women and girls attain an education – yet the budget has been cut by a quarter.

“They haven't cut their desire to educate 40 million girls but you can't cut 25 per cent of the budget and keep the same target,” the MP for Rotherham in northern England says. “So, you're either educating them to a much lesser degree or one those figures is wrong.”

Her concerns for women worldwide run deeper than Britain’s cutbacks, and she describes the untold damage Covid-19 has unleashed on female advancement as “generational”.

She predicts the secondary effects of Covid-19 will be “very, very brutal” with increased child marriage, female genital mutilation and girls withdrawn from school.

“The long-term impact on those children will be that they never reach their potential, which means that 50 per cent of a population isn't going to be economically viable, which means that the GDP of that country won't be able to reach its potential. So, it's pretty dark.”

 

In addition, there has been an “astronomical increase” in violence against women and girls while support services are forced to shut their doors, some as a result of Britain’s aid cuts. “It's a horrible, horrible situation,” she says.

That the “tiny amount” of budget dedicated to female gender issues is not ring-fenced is lamentable, Ms Champion says, so any cut will produce “devastating consequences”.

Women will inevitably suffer when the US withdraws its military from Afghanistan in September, she says.

“One of the reasons given for going into Afghanistan was because of the violence against women and girls and a complete lack of education. I can't see that as soon as the troops move out, that suddenly the Taliban are going to change their views.”

UK to suffer reputational damage in Middle East

Britain’s reputation in the Middle East is also likely to suffer with the drastic slimming down of projects in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere creating an impression of “retracting from the region”.

Ms Champion has yet to see proactive engagement or relationship-building in the Middle East from the newly merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

“It's not seen as a priority and I can only assume that the people in that region are getting a similar feeling to us, which can only have a negative impact on our relationships, squeezing us out of significance.”

Ms Champion says the government has also been remiss for failing to understand the national security implications of cutting aid, particularly in the Sahel region where ISIS is dominant.

UK foreign aid cuts a boon to ISIS?

With a potential 90 per cent cut in conflict resolution and stability aid, Ms Champion was told by aid agencies that the well-established human trafficking routes back to Britain could be taken over by ISIS terrorists to get extremists into the UK.

“That’s when you go, ‘whoa!’” she exclaims via Zoom from her home in Rotherham.

“I just don't think they've considered it from a security point of view because they just view this as the ‘fluffy bits’ of aid.

"But this is about creating stable countries and people with full tummies and economic potential, so that all of the dark things that can come from that don't happen. Aid is part of our security strategy and that just seems to be forgotten at the moment.”

Another victim could be Britain’s hard-won reputation as a force for good regardless of strategic interests and furthermore, argues the Rotherham MP, the cut will lead to self-inflicted economic damage.

Quote
The damage is done because the headlines are out there, the perception is out there

"This has put us in a bad light at the one time when we're trying to renegotiate all of our relationships post-Brexit. It's going to cost considerably more than £4bn in terms of lost reputation, not to mention lost trade deals and unfavourable tariffs countries might impose."

Despite being in opposition, the 51-year-old politician laments that even in the event of a sudden reversal, the decision has already caused irreparable harm.

“The damage is done because the headlines are out there, the perception is out there. A reversal of policy six months down the line is too late. It's all just incredibly short-sighted.”

In the coming weeks, almost certainly after important local elections in England on May 6, the UK government will detail the reduction or deletion of aid each country and project faces.

For Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson, it's going prove difficult to explain the potential consequences for each project at the height of a pandemic and when Britain leads the G7 summit.

It is perhaps only then, Ms Champion suggests with wearied resignation, that they will realise “the untold damage that they’re doing to themselves”.

More on UK foreign aid cuts

UK’s foreign aid cuts likely to hinder vaccination and climate change efforts

UK aid cuts are bad for the globe – and for Global Britain

EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS