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  • Fee Merali

The UK should commit to foreign aid to combat poverty


On the 24th November, Rishi Sunak outlined in his Spending Review that the UK would cut its foreign aid spending from the UN target of 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% for the first time since it was enshrined in law in 2015, prompting the resignation of the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Sugg. The move comes after the UK has experienced a period of economic crisis, with the economy slumping by 11.3%, the largest fall in over 300 years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the Chancellor has pledged that the government will return foreign aid spending to 0.7% when the fiscal situation allows, it would be impossible to describe this situation as anything other than what it is: the West once again failing to prioritise global development and the liberation of the extremely poor.

The Millennium Development Goals were born from the Millennium Summit of 2000, which set several commitments towards ending extreme poverty and achieving a global standard of human rights by 2015. Given that every tenth person of the world’s population currently lives below the global extreme-poverty breadline of $1.90 per day, it’s clear that these goals haven’t yet been achieved; instead, they have been rebranded as the Sustainable Development Goals, with the goal of eradicating extreme poverty being set back to 2030, another fifteen years.

In fact, while many of the UN member states have been hitting the 0.7% benchmark of foreign aid spending, which up until now included the UK, the main reason for this slow progress is that not all countries have been meeting the mark. In 2019, although the US was the largest monetary donor towards development aid spending, at a sum of $34.62 billion, this actually only accounted for 0.16% of the US’ GNI, well below the UN target, and actually only five other countries met or exceeded the UK’s spending of 0.7%.

That isn’t to say that global development spending so far hasn’t had any success; in fact, the commitment of the UN member states towards the MDGs, and now the SDGs, has meant that global extreme poverty rates have decreased from around 1.9 billion of the global population in 1990 to around 650 million in 2018. In countries like India, foreign aid spending has had a massive impact, with the country experiencing one of the most rapid levels of economic growth in history throughout the 2000s and making its place on the international stage as a growing technology export giant. Other important achievements have been reached too – between 2000 and 2013, new HIV infection rates fell by around 40%, which is hugely significant given that the virus killed 440,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019 alone.

However, it was also in 2019 that the WHO raised the concern that HIV and AIDS-related death rates are not falling fast enough to meet the SDGs by 2030. The main issue lies in the fact that wealthy countries believe they are making more of an impact than they are in reality. In fact, the uneven rate at which foreign aid is achieving the UN goals means that the vast majority of the poorest of the poor are now situated in sub-Saharan Africa. That means that commitments made by 191 member states in 2000 will still be unaccomplished, 30 years later. This effect is bound to be exacerbated even further by the Covid-19 virus; due to the pandemic, global extreme poverty is expected to rise in 2020 for the first time in over 20 years as its effects further compound the effects of climate change, regional conflicts and other factors contributing to the slow reduction of extreme poverty.

Rishi Sunak rationalised the foreign cuts by emphasising the negative impacts of Covid-19 on the UK’s economy, the NHS, the education system and unemployment. It is estimated that in 2021, unemployment will reach 7.5%, which will leave roughly 2.6 million people without a job. On top of this, the UK’s borrowing is set to reach £394 billion this year – the highest level in peacetime history. It’s a pretty dire situation, and the policies set out in the Spending Review are of course justifiable. The UK government has a difficult job ahead of them – stabilise the UK economy, keeping the R rate below 1, on top of juggling Brexit negotiations.

Given that Boris Johnson’s approval ratings sat at about 40% on average in October, it’s understandable why the UK government is focusing on prioritising its own population. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the unique situation in which we find ourselves as citizens of one of the world’s most fortunate and privileged countries, while millions are randomly born into some of the most dismal conditions known to humanity. It is not the white man’s burden, but the responsibility of those in a position to help – to lift the poorest out of a situation in which no matter which way they turn, they simply don’t have the resources to live, thrive, or even survive.

Countries like India have shown that it is possible to reverse the ride of extreme poverty. The UK’s economy will bounce back. The starving, the dying, the malnourished and the diseased will not; not without every member of the UN making a real commitment to spending 0.7% on foreign aid.

Photo by Kevin Paes on Unsplash



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