Ministers have been accused of choosing the “worst moment in history” to cut the foreign aid budget, as provisional figures showed the UK’s external humanitarian funding fell by more than half last year.
Parliament members and philanthropists say the aid budget urgently needs to be increased to counter the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of famine in Africa. Up to 23 million people are facing acute hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia due to drought.
The United Nations has warned that the Ukraine crisis threatens to push 1.7 billion people – a fifth of the world’s population – into poverty, destitution and hunger. The government said last week that it now intends to boost humanitarian aid by giving less money to international organizations and focusing on direct aid from the UK.
Western officials are said to fear that Vladimir Putin is “arming” the global food supply. Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports.
It would be hard to think of a worse moment in history for the government to cut its foreign aid budget, said Sarah Champion, Labor MP for the House of Commons International Development Committee.
“We are the only member of the G7 rich country group that is doing this. It is having a detrimental effect on our international standing – and the survival chances of some of the poorest people on the planet.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a controversial cut in aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income in November 2020.
Britain’s direct humanitarian aid to foreign countries amounted to 744 million pounds last year, compared to 1.53 billion pounds in 2020, a decline of 51%, according to the latest British temporary aid figures. Britain’s official development assistance came to nearly £11.5 billion last year, compared to £14.48 billion in 2020, a drop of 21%.
Separate figures published in the annual report of the Foreign, Commonwealth Office and Development (FCDO) last year revealed that UK direct and planned aid to Ethiopia fell from £241m in 2020/21 to £108m in 2021/22, a drop of 55%. Aid to Kenya decreased from 67 million pounds to 41 million pounds, or 39%; Aid to Somalia decreased from 121 million pounds to 71 million pounds, or 41%.
One of the world’s largest humanitarian crises is located in Yemen, which has been devastated by eight years of civil war. About 24 million people need assistance, including nearly 13 million children. British aid to Yemen decreased from £221m in 2020/21 to £82m in 2021/22, a 63% decrease.
Sam Nadel, Head of Government Relations at Oxfam, said: “Government is cutting aid at a time when we are witnessing war in Ukraine, Covid pandemic and millions of people in Africa on the brink of famine. It is the most terrifying of times. It is also myopic because aid helps address global challenges. Helping the UK in the long run.
Ministers have announced £220m in humanitarian and development aid to Ukraine, further putting pressure on Britain’s slashed aid budget.
Kate Munro, chair of advocacy at Charity Action Against Hunger, said aid funding should go back to 0.7% of gross national income and ministers should urgently announce a new aid package for millions of people facing starvation in East Africa. “It saves money to work early in the crisis,” she said.
The charity will attend an event in Parliament this week to campaign for more aid for East Africa. It is calling for a £750m government funding commitment, similar to the one made in 2017 when East Africa was also hit by drought and widespread famine was averted.
Last week, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced a new International Development Strategy, which aims to help achieve the UK’s foreign policy goals. More money will be spent on direct aid from the UK, rather than internationally.
Champion last week described the new strategy as “a reformulation of existing slogans,” but welcomed its focus on women and girls. She said the “aid for trade” policy is dangerous and could distort the primary objective of international assistance to support the poor and the most vulnerable.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said: “Intensifying our life-saving humanitarian work to prevent the worst forms of human suffering around the world is one of the top priorities identified by the Foreign Secretary in the UK’s International Development Strategy this week.
“We will prioritize humanitarian funding levels at £3 billion over the next three years, to remain a global leader in crisis response, including in Africa.”