How ‘Global Britain’ is letting down the world’s poor
From Friday 27 January a Yemeni family tuning in to the BBC World Service Arabic broadcasts would be disappointed. To save £28 million towards a shortfall caused by inflation and freezing of the license fee, BBC Radio’s ten foreign language services are being shut down and several hundred staff made redundant. It’s digital or TV now — for those who can afford it.
Yemen is a destitute, hungry, war-torn country. Few will have the money to buy a mobile phone to catch the only independent news on-line. This unseen discrimination against the poorest in the world may seem a minor, distant matter. But it is a small part of a bigger picture. And we should be concerned.
For the last few years, the UK has been behaving as if it didn’t have enough money for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to pursue a coherent humanitarian and development policy. Yet we were one of the 19 founder signatories of the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) in 1960. It numbers 38 democracies today. Its mandate is to promote “a collaboration in policy standards to promote sustainable growth”. It describes development assistance as directed at “economic development and welfare of developing countries”. Do we really share these goals? There is growing evidence we don’t.
In 2021 the aid budget was “temporarily” (weasel words – it is likely to stay that way until the end of the decade) reduced from the UN target of 0.7% of GNP (Gross National Product) to 0.5%. This amounted to a cut of 21%, from £14.5 billion to about £11.4 billion, of which about £7.14 billion (62.6%) was in the form of direct bilateral aid to individual countries, some of it via the World Food Programme — for example feeding the starving in Yemen. The overall budget for Yemen was halved in 2021 from £221 million to £114 million. Yet the country’s need continued to grow.
Cuts in spending for Lebanon are another egregious example. In July 2021, a year after a huge explosion in a port warehouse caused extensive devastation in Beirut, and on top of Lebanon’s economic collapse, the incoming British ambassador, Ian Collard, inherited an aid budget of £140 million, cut from £260 million for the period 2019-2020. According to the newspaper L’Orient Today a further 2021-2022 cut was scheduled to reduce the budget to about £32 million.
Lebanon hosts 2.2 million Syrian refugees and over 200, 000 Palestinians. Its total population is 5.6 million, 40% of whom now require humanitarian assistance. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict the impact of across-the-board cuts of this magnitude on British embassies’ capacity to promote “economic development and welfare”. You might have thought that Lebanon, a failed state, tucked perilously between Israel and Syria, would fall within the FCDO’s priority category, alongside Syria and Afghanistan. Not so.
In June 2020 Boris Johnson described the aid budget as a “giant cashpoint in the sky” and amalgamated our development ministry with the Foreign Office. But who is making the withdrawals and for what purpose? The Home Office, for one. A more accurate description is the budget for plugging holes — of which there are many, such as the rising cost of housing and feeding refugees in this country.
We have an aid ceiling in the UK. So payment of hotels, for food and other burgeoning refugee expenses cannot be covered by adding to an overall budget that is fixed. An interesting set of submissions to a December 2022 Parliamentary Select Committee on International Aid on the funding of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in UK (on-line thanks to the Washington and London-based Global Center for Development) provides detailed evidence.
It shows that 12% of the UK aid budget is being used to meet some of the current Treasury shortfall. And that sum could double. Just as the effects of climate change are being felt, this means drastic cuts in life-saving humanitarian aid, let alone development aid. £700 million went to East Africa to mitigate the consequences of the 2016-2018 droughts. £156 million was budgeted for last year’s continuing and no less severe drought.
Over 150,000 applicants for asylum in Britain are waiting for a decision on their status; tens of thousands have been waiting for over three years. In Germany, using a UNHCR triage system, the wait is on average 6-7 months. We are dealing with far fewer Ukrainian refugees than Germany, which has issued six times the number of UK visas, or neighbouring Poland which has accepted 1.26 million. Yet here in the UK, the arrival of 45,750 people in small boats in 2022 is treated as a national crisis. Meanwhile the inefficiency and waste of the Home Office is covered by money taken from the world’s hungry.
The Home Office under Priti Patel and Suella Braverman appears incapable of managing, processing and integrating new arrivals. Part of the problem is the plethora of un-coordinated special programmes for select categories of refugees from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Syria. Staff don’t even have an adequate database and rely on spreadsheets. But at the root is a dysfunctional Home Office, led since Priti Patel’s appointment in July 2018 by ministers who are simply not up to the job. They have played to the Conservative back benches while expenditure and backlogs soared. They offer rhetoric rather than action. Pre-Covid, in 2018, the Government was spending £370 million on refugee costs inside the UK. Today it is projected to be about £2.7 billion. And this will come out of the aid budget.
The OECD does acknowledge that members may want to fund refugees from their aid budgets for the first year after their arrival [my italics]. But none of the G7 countries are funding most of what are called “in-donor costs” from aid in the way that Britain now does. This expedient is not illegal, simply unethical. It is condemned by a wide range of British NGOs concerned with human rights, the plight of refugees and international development aid.
Dipping into the aid budget began in a small way in 2009 under Gordon Brown, but it has reached unacceptable proportions under Johnson, Truss and Sunak. Priti Patel’s “Migration and Economic Development Partnership”, a deportation scheme in collaboration with an authoritarian African state, Rwanda, now championed by Suella Braverman, is the embodiment of the way our former vision of development assistance, and that of the OECD, has been deliberately degraded. It is costing more than £120 million.
So no surprise that “Global Britain” has proved to be an empty slogan. It was put about after the 2016 referendum to provide Brexit with the illusion of grand purpose. “The whole idea of having a coherent, consistent portfolio of development action has disappeared,” in the words of Professor Michael Collyer of Sussex University. By 2030 it is reckoned conflict and fragile states will be home to 85% of the world’s poor. We neglect them at our peril.
Britain does not need empty slogans. We need to nurture clear foreign and development policy objectives, to pursue them and to hold out for an ethical dimension within a coherent FCDO strategy. We should not be making the poor of the world pay for the failures of incompetent ministers.
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