Britain will reverse its major cut to overseas aid spending as soon as the economy recovers from the pandemic, the UK's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab vowed on Thursday.
Following a major backlash against Britain's reduction of more than £4 billion ($5.57bn) in international aid, Mr Raab made the unequivocal commitment to return it to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product "when the fiscal situation allows".
Despite his promise, he faced a torrent of questions over the impact of the reduction to 0.5 per cent of GDP, including the implications to British national security in the Sahel region where ISIS is growing in strength.
Britain is the only G7 member cutting its aid budget at a time when France, Germany and the US are increasing theirs, to reach or pass the 0.7 per cent level.
The cut has been condemned by both Conservative and Labour politicians and was frequently raised during a two-hour questioning of Mr Raab by MPs on the International Development Committee on Thursday.
“This was a decision we took in sorrow and with regret because of the fiscal condition that we found ourselves in,” Mr Raab argued.
“We intend to return to the 0.7 per cent target when the fiscal situation allows, once we recover from pretty exceptional, uncertain and unprecedented circumstances.”
Concerns have been raised that the swathe of cuts to certain countries could destabilise them, including the Sahel region in West Africa, where Mr Raab was asked to make an impact assessment for aid cuts that will fall from £340 million to £23m.
“It is a very unstable area where Daesh is really mobilising, so would you do an impact assessment on the cutting of funding there to our national security?” asked Labour committee chairwoman Sarah Champion. “Wouldn't an impact assessment consider the potential threat that that might bring to this country in terms of security?”
It was something his department would look at “very carefully”, Mr Raab replied. “We obviously look at the most vulnerable countries very closely.”
The government was expected to detail its aid spending for the next financial year, country by country, but in a written statement on Wednesday it only set out new classifications as to how it plans to distribute £8.1bn in aid, about 80 per cent of its total budget.
Mr Raab said his department was studying “country-by-country plans” for how the money would be distributed. “I don't think it's realistic to think that any country will be entirely immune from the savings we have to make,” he said.
The aid reduction to the impoverished people of Yemen is the only cut to be officially announced. UK aid to Yemen is to decline by 60 per cent, from £197m to £87m.
Theo Clarke, a Conservative MP on the committee, said she had heard “extremely distressing evidence from witnesses in Yemen” on the cutback’s effect on child mortality levels and the chances of creating conditions for peace.
“My overarching concern in Yemen is that the Houthis are still engaged – notwithstanding the Saudi [peace] offer – in aggressive military activity with attacks on Saudi,” said Mr Raab. “We've got to persuade the Houthis to come to the diplomatic table because that is the only way there will be a lasting peace for the people of Yemen.”
Mr Raab said that Britain had a “crisis reserve” of £30 million that could be deployed within 24 hours of a natural disaster or other emergency.
He also promised that Britain would, as host of the G7 summit in June, use its influence to assist in girls’ education around the world. “We can combine our aid spend with our diplomatic and convening power to encourage others in this team effort to get 40 million more girls into education and 20 million more literate by the age of 10,” he said.
Ms Champion said she had been told by some NGOs that children were going hungry because the Foreign Office was not signing off cheques. Mr Raab denied this.
He was also challenged over Britain’s recent decision –announced in its Integrated Review of defence and security – to expand its nuclear missile arsenal by 40 per cent, with the accusation that it was “a wasted amount of money”, especially during the pandemic.
“This is maintaining minimum credible deterrence,” Mr Raab said. “Nuclear security is incredibly important, not least given the proliferation of hostile state activity and the diverse nature of the threats that we face.”