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Devastating cuts to UK aid will cost lives

Why the UK Government's decision to cut the foreign aid budget matters, and how you can respond

Clare Lyons | 14 Jul 2021

Women line up to receive a food distribution in South Sudan (Will Swanson/Tearfund)

Women line up to receive a food distribution in South Sudan (Will Swanson/Tearfund)

On 13 July, the UK Parliament debated restoring the foreign aid budget to 0.7 per cent of national income, which is the commitment outlined in UK law. However, a small majority of MPs voted to maintain the cuts, keeping the aid budget at 0.5 per cent. It now seems unlikely that we will see a return to the UK’s aid commitments until 2024 at the earliest. Meanwhile, people living in poverty will suffer the consequences of this decision, at a time when they desperately need extra support.

‘For people living in poverty this is a devastating blow,’ says Nigel Harris, Tearfund’s CEO, in response to the announcement. ‘The UK’s life-saving aid budget has enabled our nation to have a world-leading role in providing vaccinations, education, access to clean energy, alongside humanitarian support for communities impacted by conflict and climate change.

‘Cutting the aid budget undermines the UK’s ability to lead on the global stage, and it is hard to see how the Prime Minister will be able to show credible leadership as the host of the UN climate talks in Glasgow later this year. 

‘We must be under no illusion that these – now indefinite – cuts not only break long-term promises to the world’s poorest, but will cost thousands of lives – both now and in the future.’

Here’s a quick summary on the cuts to UK aid – what’s happened, why it matters, and how you can respond.

What’s happened?

In 2015, the UK Parliament voted to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas development aid and this commitment was written into UK law. 

However, in November 2020, the UK Government decided to cut the UK’s overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income, due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This move received strong criticism from many across the political spectrum, including all living former Prime Ministers, as well as academics, business leaders and international development organisations. 

Tearfund’s CEO, Nigel Harris, called it a ‘cruel, badly calculated decision’ that would affect the world’s poorest communities, already on the brink of survival.

Many of you joined us in prayer and action and wrote to your MPs, urging them to call on the Prime Minister to reverse this decision. 

What’s the latest decision?

On 12 July 2021, the government proposed that the UK restores its 0.7 per cent aid budget when certain economic conditions (such as the UK budget being in surplus) are met. However, economic analysts, including the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), commented that the conditions set out would be incredibly difficult to reach in the near future. For example, the UK budget has only been in surplus once in the last 10 years.

On 13 July, Parliament debated this proposal. Many spoke out against the cuts, citing the direct impact of the cuts to life-saving development and humanitarian work, as well as the impact on the UK’s global and moral leadership. One of those who spoke was former Prime Minister Theresa May, who said that she would be voting against the government for the first time in her political career.

Unfortunately, the majority of MPs voted in favour of maintaining the cuts (333 votes to 298).  This effectively means an end to the UK’s 0.7 per cent aid commitment until 2024, and possibly longer.

We pay tribute to the MPs who voted against the cuts, particularly the 24 Conservative MPs who voted against the government in favour of keeping our promises on aid. Thank you to supporters who contacted their MPs to express their support for maintaining the UK’s aid commitments.

Why does this matter?

Tearfund and our supporters have campaigned in favour of the 0.7 per cent commitment on aid for many years. This is because UK aid has been crucial in transforming and saving lives in some of the poorest and hardest to reach communities.

The decision to cut the UK aid budget could not have come at a worse time, with the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis already pushing people further into poverty. It also threatens to undermine the UK Government’s credibility and global leadership ahead of the UN Climate Summit (COP26) in November.

To find out more about why UK aid matters, read our blog ‘Why the UK Government is wrong to cut overseas aid’ from November 2020.

How can I respond to this? 

Clare Lyons

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