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Tue 22 June 2021

Boris Johnson has promised Brexit means a Global Britain – but plans to cut foreign aid in favour of defence spending is likely to mean the opposite explains Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

The United Kingdom’s oblivious descent into isolationism has turned another page with Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge to cut foreign aid in November, while simultaneously increasing defence spending. The Brexit transition deadline is just weeks ahead of us and cuts in foreign aid could leave Britain with fewer friends, at a time when building stronger relations with the rest of the world is more crucial than ever. 

Sunak announced the government would reduce the foreign policy budget to 0.5% from 0.7%, which amounts to around £4 billion per year. As Britain also pledged an increase to the defence budget by £19 billion over the next four years – the biggest increase since the Cold War, these cuts were clearly never about saving the economy,

“Cutting the UK’s lifeline to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a global pandemic will lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths,” said Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB chief executive. “At a time when hundreds of millions of people are hungry and decades of progress against poverty is under threat, today’s decision is a false economy which diverts money for clean water and medicines to pay for bombs and bullets.

“The fact the Government has taken this decision before its own long-awaited Integrated Review is complete shows that this is hasty short-term politics not sensible long-term strategy.”


A Global Foreign Policy

While Britain has lauded its “global” foreign policy as ethical, key aid recipients including Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia will now lose out. The cuts should remove all doubts that the UK government is not pursuing benevolent policies that it claims to value. 

Various former officials, including Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Tony Blair, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and over 200 NGOs, slammed the decision. Baroness Sugg also resigned in protest, showing divisions within the Government.  

“Given the link between our development spend and the health of our economy, the economic downturn has already led to significant cuts this year and I do not believe we should reduce our support further at a time of unprecedented global crises,” Baroness Sugg wrote in her resignation letter. 

Sugg also told the Prime Minister that cutting foreign aid “risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right”.

As the new budget also entails public spending cuts, this highlights Britain’s dubious claims of progressive policies, instead it prioritises its populist Brexit agenda. Particularly after the Coronavirus pandemic has ravaged societies and worsened living conditions the world over, including in the UK. 

“There is no doubt that the economy will need to be rebuilt in the aftermath of COVID, but that should be through investing in positive and sustainable industries rather than one that depends on war and conflict in order to make a profit,” Andrew Smith at the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) told Byline Times. “Boris Johnson has talked about implementing a ‘green industrial revolution’ but the extra money provided is eclipsed by the funding he has given the military,” he added.

“There were already problems with the UK’s aid model, but what the decision to cut it did was to expose the careless and inappropriate priorities of the Government. Where UK aid has had a positive impact, the cut will be felt by people in often desperate situations. This cut is one of political positioning and bad priorities rather than economic necessity.”


Profiting from War

Further testament to the UK’s misplaced priorities was UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab promising a relatively minuscule sum of £14 million to the crisis in Yemen on 3 December.

British Aerospace Engineering (BAE), in contrast, has sold around 1,000 times that sum in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their war on the country since March 2015. The UK also increased its arms sales to Saudi Arabia by 300% in 2019 compared to the previous year, along with other repressive regimes, according to CAAT figures.

“Making billions from arms exports which fuel the conflict while providing a small fraction of that in aid to Yemen is both immoral and incoherent. The world’s wealthiest nations cannot continue to put profits above the Yemeni people,” said Oxfam’s Yemen country director Muhsin Siddiquey.

Such deals also reveal Britain’s dependency on arms sales to ease the trade deficit from Brexit – evidently a “quick fix” economic solution.  

Boris Johnson’s populist vision of a “global Britain” is clearly not focused on achieving such mantra. Perhaps in the worst case, the focus on bolstering defence may even revive past failed policies of intervention and projection of military force, rather than investing in the communities and the services that we all rely upon.


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