UK cuts overseas aid after worst recession in over 300 years

LONDON (AP) — The British government faced fury on Wednesday after ditching its long-standing target for overseas aid in the wake of what it described as the deepest recession in over three centuries.

In a statement to lawmakers, Treasury Chief Rishi Sunak said the target to allocate 0.7 per cent of national income to overseas aid will be cut to 0.5 per cent. The move is expected to free up GBP4 billion for the Conservative government to use elsewhere, money that critics say could be used to save tens of thousands of lives in the poorest parts of the world.

While expressing “great respect to those who have argued passionately to retain this target”, Sunak said “sticking rigidly” to it “is difficult to justify” to people at a time when the economy has been so battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“At a time of unprecedented crisis, government must make tough choices,” he said.

Without giving a timetable, he said that the government aims to return to the target first laid out by the Labour government of Tony Blair in 2004. And he said that even with the new target, the United Kingdom (UK) will still be the second biggest aid spender among the Group of Seven leading industrial nations.

Festive lights are lit up on New Bond Street in Mayfair, London on November 24. PHOTO: AP

The decision goes against the government’s promise last year to maintain the aid target and drew sharp criticism from across the political spectrum, including within Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own Conservative Party.

Junior Minister at the Foreign Office Liz Sugg quit in the wake of the decision, arguing that it “will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right”. She said it undermines Johnson’s efforts to promote a ‘Global Britain’ in the wake of the country’s departure from the European Union (EU) earlier this year.

The UK is considered one of the world’s leaders in development issues so the cut was met with dismay from anti-poverty campaigners.

“Cutting the UK’s lifeline to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a global pandemic will lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths,” said Oxfam Chief Executive Danny Sriskandarajah.

Save the Children Chief Executive Kevin Watkins said the decision had “broken Britain’s reputation for leadership on the world stage” ahead of its hosting of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

In a sobering assessment that provided the backdrop to the cut, Sunak sought to balance ongoing support for the economy with a longer-term commitment to heal public finances after a stark deterioration.

“Our health emergency is not yet over and our economic emergency has only just begun,” he said.