Let's stand up for UK aid

Laurie Lee
An aid distribution funded by UK aid after Cyclone Idai in Mozambique (photo © Josh Estey/CARE 2019)

Since 1997, I have been working – for the UK government as a civil servant, for the Gates Foundation, and now as CEO of CARE International UK – to support people and communities around the world to lift themselves out of poverty. And I can safely say that yesterday – when the UK government announced its intention to make the biggest cut in overseas aid by any nation, ever – was the worst day in my career.

Back in 2005, I was proud to be part of the government team that listened to the clear message from the British public that they wanted the UK to be a leader in striving to Make Poverty History. Since then, I have every day been inspired and humbled by the efforts of people and communities around the world – supported by the British people through the UK’s commitment to overseas aid – to overcome the challenges they face and to build a better, safer, and fairer world not just for themselves, but for everyone.

So the news that the UK government wants to cut international aid by a massive 30%, at a time of global crisis when it is needed more than ever, is devastating.

COVID-19 has had a terrible impact in the UK but it is also having a terrible impact on the world's very poorest people. CARE International is sad to see Britain reduce its support for them in the middle of this global pandemic.

Cutting the UK’s overseas aid budget by one-third means the UK government will have to stop one in three of their plans to help reduce poverty around the world. Imagine if we closed one in three schools or hospitals. It is an enormous cut. It has to have an impact on the very poorest in the world. It will put lives at risk.

Let’s not forget that this cut comes on top of £2.9bn in cuts that have already been made to the aid budget this year. That’s because the aid budget is a percentage of the UK’s national income, which has fallen due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

This means that the aid budget has already been cut by 20% this year.

We understand this is a hard time for the UK, too. Many people have said this is the worst crisis in Britain since the war – that it is “our generation’s WW2”. Yet after the war, when Britain was in need, other countries came to our help. Friday, 27 November 2020, is CARE’s 75th birthday. Exactly 75 years ago, CARE was founded so that people in the USA could send millions of CARE Packages to families in Britain and Europe after the war. At a time when people in Britain and Europe needed help, the USA didn’t reduce aid, they increased it with the Marshall Plan.

Britain, too, has a proud history of supporting those who need our help. During this global pandemic crisis, Britain can afford to help those who need it, like people helped us in 1945.

Of course we understand that the UK government needs to review its overall budget in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the amount of money saved by this additional one-third cut in UK aid won’t make a big difference to the UK budget deficit (for example, the cut in UK aid is a quarter of the amount by which the UK defence budget has been increased). But it will have a huge impact on the poorest people in the world, people fleeing conflict and natural disasters, and communities facing the coronavirus pandemic with basic and fragile healthcare systems.  

Aid works, and as a nation we should be proud of it. Just like the Conservative election manifesto said less than one year ago. Through a combination of economic growth and effective aid, the share of people living in extreme poverty – people living on less than £1.40 a day – has fallen from half of the world’s people in 1990 to less than one in ten people today.

But COVID-19 is putting that progress at risk. Global extreme poverty is expected to rise in 2020 for the first time in over 20 years. One hundred million more people could be pushed below £1.40 a day in 2020. Aid is also playing a vital role in helping people who have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic. Without this help, more people will go hungry.

This cut also risks damaging our standing with international partners. As the UK gets ready to host global leaders for the G7 and the COP26 climate change summit, cutting our spending in these areas risks damaging our reputation on the world stage, and giving the green light to other governments to cut investment. We should be walking into those meetings urging other G7 countries to match the UK’s leadership and meet the 0.7% ‘fair share’ UN target – not telling them it’s OK to cut aid.

That is what Britain did in 2005 when it chaired the G7. As a result, every G7 member (bar the USA) now gives a larger percentage of their income in overseas development aid (ODA) than they did in 2004. But Britain is about to go backwards, to the level we were at 15 years ago.

We must not pay for COVID-19 on the backs of the poorest people in the world; because COVID-19 just made them even poorer.

  • It’s not too late to reverse this decision. Please take a moment to email your MP to ask them to defend UK aid:

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Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website