A perfect storm of Government cuts, war in Ukraine, rising wheat costs and existing famines risks death and suffering worldwide

The combination of the UK Government’s international aid cut and the much-needed humanitarian response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine risks squeezing funds for other, equally urgent, crises, experts have warned. 

The warning comes as aid agencies were already expressing concern that the crisis in Ukraine will lead to rising wheat costs and food supply chain issues, impacting food relief in countries in Africa affected by famine. 

In October 2021, the UK Government voted for a manifesto-breaking decision to reduce international aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP. 

“The aid cuts had clearly reduced UK Government spending on all sorts of issues around the world,” CAFOD’s Head of Public Policy Graham Gordon told Byline Times. “From education for women and girls, food security in regions across the world, water and sanitation, medical assistance, and peacebuilding”.

Now, Gordon says, “in the case of more aid money going to Ukraine, there’ll be an increasing squeeze on those already stretched funds going to other parts of the world”.

This categorically is not to suggest that the UK Government should not be providing aid to Ukraine. So far it has announced £140 million in Government support – including a commitment to provide £40 million humanitarian aid on 27 February. 

The concern is that, unless the Government increases its overall aid budgets, for example by scrapping the 0.2% of GDP cut, “we could see reduced spending on women and girl’s education, on peacebuilding, on water and sanitation and food security in other parts of the world that really need support,” Gordon explained. “We have choices about whether support for Ukraine comes out of the aid budget or another budget. But the Government also has choices about whether it can increase its aid budget to cover this new and urgent need”. 

“The way the Government has set its 0.5% of GDP ceiling for aid means they are looking at a zero sum game on aid spending,” he continued. “And it potentially has a knock on effect on our climate spending too, which will set us up for more crises later on”.

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Cuts to Ukraine Aid

The decision to reduce international aid spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% of GDP meant that of the 46 territories that received bilateral overseas development aid from DFID in 2019, Ukraine was not included as receiving aid from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in 2021/22. 

Speaking on the future of UK aid to the International Development Committee in 2021, the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab explained “we are focused on giving as much reassurance to the Ukrainians as we possibly can right across the piece, from the kind of work you are talking about through to the Operation Orbital training of Ukrainian forces. We are trying to send a very clear message to Russia”.

The Chair of the Committee, Labour MP Sarah Champion then asked Raab about the funding cut, saying “it seems that the real hit in terms of cuts is for the rest-of-the-world programmes, which look as though they are down from £4.3 billion in 2019 to £1.4 billion for 2021‑22. Ukraine would be one of those countries. DevTracker has Ukraine down as £0 for this financial year”.

Raab responded by pointing Champion to allocations related to the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) – a fund designed to support activities to prevent instability in countries with UK interests. 

However, the CSSF has seen a significant drop in its income: in 2021/22, the Integrated Review allocated the CSSF with £874 million compared to £1.4 billion the previous year. 

In terms of conflict resolution spend, the Government has announced a £12 million aid package to fund UN peacebuilding programmes in around 40 countries.

Another area of concern regarding the UK’s international aid cuts in regard to Ukraine is spending on HIV AIDS support. Funding for UN AIDS, which coordinates international action on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, was slated to be reduced from £15 million in 2020 to £2.5 million in 2021. UN AIDS said this will affect its efforts to improve empowerment among women and girls and its support for LGBTQ+ people. 

Ukraine is the hardest hit country in the region by the deadly disease, with an estimated 360,000 people living with HIV. Conflict is identified as a risk factor of transmission of HIV. 

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK has pledged £140 million of Government support to the country this year, more than reversing the previous decision to reduce aid funding to £0. On average, Ukraine was receiving £29 million in aid each year.  


The Cost of Bread

As well as concerns for Ukraine itself, the conflict risks having a ripple effect around the world, particularly on countries struggling with food insecurity and famine. 

A total of 44 million people in 38 countries are on the edge of famine.

This is because Ukraine and Russia control around 30% of the world’s traded wheat, which is exported mainly to the Middle East and North Africa, as well as 20% of world’s maize. Russia’s invasion has led to pressures on wheat supply chains, as well as rising food prices, sparking concern in NGOs delivering food aid to countries impacted by famine.

According to the World Food Programme, wheat price increases and lack of pulses from Ukraine are expected to raise the cost of its food procurement by around US$23 million per month, with some of the world’s current hunger hotspots such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen most affected because of their dependency on wheat. This comes on top of already surging prices, which have made World Food Programme operations more than a third more expensive than they were on average in 2019.

Speaking on Channel 4 News, Head of the World Food Programme David Beasley said: “Before Ukraine I was cutting funds by 50% because I didn’t have resources. Our operations were taking a $1 billion hit because of supply chain issues. Now I need $600 million for three months for Ukraine and I’m already $1 billion short”. 

Graham Gordon told Byline Times that this crisis needs to be “a wake-up call” about food supply chains and improving food security. 

“If we have countries that are highly dependent on food imports, that’s not a sustainable system,” Gordon explained. “We need to be learning from different models of food supplies, in countries where they have shorter supply chains, and local markets”.

He cites communities in Peru, Colombia and Brazil where indigenous farming practices have helped tackle food insecurity so that communities are no longer reliant on importing food aid.

To achieve this, and reduce each crisis contributing to more instability, CAFOD is calling for the Government to “increase aid money on climate adaptation, agroecology and agroforestry, and supporting sustainable food systems,” Gordon said. 

“There are going to be other crises,” he added. “The climate crisis will continue. There’ll be more conflict, there may be more zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. By supporting local food systems and more diverse crops, we can already increase food security and look for new ways to respond”. 

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