UK government's decision to cut international aid budget was strategically stupid and unspeakably cruel – Susan Dalgety

The decision by Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak to cut the international aid budget was condemned by former Prime Minister David Cameron, among others (Picture: Jonathan Brady)The decision by Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak to cut the international aid budget was condemned by former Prime Minister David Cameron, among others (Picture: Jonathan Brady)
The decision by Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak to cut the international aid budget was condemned by former Prime Minister David Cameron, among others (Picture: Jonathan Brady)
Debra’s message last Monday was urgent. “Is it possible to help me find a scholarship for Lindy? My brother said he will not be able to pay for her again as his contract was not renewed because of Covid.”

As we exchanged WhatsApp messages, it emerged that 18-year-old Lindy would have to drop out of university if her mum could not raise £600 for her next instalment of tuition fees. Her dream of becoming a chartered accountant was in serious jeopardy.

University education in Malawi is expensive. Loans are reserved for students at a handful of public universities, but as many more young people qualify for a university place than are available each year, private institutions fill the gap.

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But their fees are out of reach for most people, certainly women like Debra, a seamstress. Her brother, Lindy’s uncle, had fulfilled his family obligation to educate his niece while he was in work, but with no regular salary coming in he could no longer support her.

She would have to leave university halfway through her degree, unqualified and with no prospects of work. And so the cycle of poverty grinds on.

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A broken promise

My friends rallied round and within three days we had raised Lindy’s fees. Strangers, 5,000 miles from Lindy’s home in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, gave money to support the dreams of a young woman they had never met, or were ever likely to.

They did it out of a spirit of solidarity, an understanding that the world cannot flourish while the majority of people remain in poverty and that education should be a right for all, not just those children fortunate to be born in a rich country. They did it out of common humanity.

A few days after Debra’s desperate plea, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, broke a solemn promise his government had made only last year in their manifesto. He cut the UK’s international development budget by nearly one third, reducing the government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid to 0.5 per cent.

“Sticking rigidly to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people,” Sunak told the House of Commons, adding that he would re-consider the decision when finances allowed, which is politician-speak for “never”.

Sunak’s slashing of international aid comes only a few months after his boss, Boris Johnson, abolished the Department of International Development, merging its functions with the Foreign Office. Johnson tried to justify his decision by saying it would “safeguard British interests and values overseas”, but few in the aid sector believed him.

Mothers will die needlessly in childbirth

The decision “suggests the UK is turning its back on the world’s poorest people”, wrote the signatories of a letter to the Prime Minister in June, a sentiment echoed this week by Labour’s shadow chancellor, Annelise Dodds, in response to Sunak’s decision.

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And in her resignation letter as minister for overseas territories on Wednesday, Tory peer Baroness Sugg said the decision to cut aid undermined efforts to end extreme poverty. It is “fundamentally wrong,” she added.

Even former Tory PM David Cameron emerged from his shed to condemn the move, describing it as “a mistake”. He tweeted in response to Sunak’s speech: “0.7 per cent is ultimately very simple. We share this planet with millions who are starving, with mothers who die needlessly in childbirth and with children who die of preventable diseases and with countries that are broken by conflict, corruption and poverty.”

Mothers who die needlessly in childbirth. Strip out the Chancellor’s political rhetoric about “domestic fiscal emergency”, “limited resources” and “tough choices”, and the decision to cut support to the world’s poorest countries boils down to this: teenage girls will die in agony while giving birth on the ground.

Babies will go unvaccinated against killer diseases such as measles, polio and typhoid. And young women like Lindy will never realise their potential, their education cut short at primary school because our government made a “tough choice”.

Common humanity

Sunak and Johnson may feel they have popular support for their mean-spirited, short-sighted move. A YouGov poll in advance of the decision suggests that two thirds (66 per cent) of people think that reducing the amount spent on overseas aid is the right thing to do.

But this is not news. Spending on foreign aid has long been unpopular with voters, but no government won or lost an election on the size of its international development budget.

Principled government is not a popularity contest. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly damaged our economy and Brexit will add to our fiscal woes, so of course difficult decisions about tax and spending have to be made.

But cutting support to the world’s poorest is strategically stupid and unspeakably cruel. Our world is far more connected than it was in 1997 when Tony Blair established the Department of International Development, our future even more interdependent than five years ago when Britain became the first G7 country to commit to 0.7 per cent.

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Covid does not recognise borders, neither does climate change. Both require a global response, countries working together to save humanity.

When an African baby dies of typhoid or malnourishment, her mother grieves with the same intensity as a bereaved woman here. This is our common humanity.

And if girls in Malawi – and Scotland – are not educated to their full potential, the world will suffer. Lindy and her global sisters are our future. They will discover the next vaccine, create the businesses that will fuel economic growth, teach the next generation. But only if we nurture them. The Conservatives have clearly decided they are not worth the investment.

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