Pandemic the perfect time to increase foreign aid, not cut it
The year 2020 may see the global rate of poverty rise for the first time since 1988. It may also see a major decline in overseas aid spending from major donor powers. How, in the time of a global pandemic and the most severe economic crisis since the great crash of 1929, will the richer countries of the world respond? How can the international community prevent a coronavirus disease-related humanitarian crisis becoming an economic humanitarian crisis?
This debate was brought into sharp focus when the UK government announced last week that it was going to renege on its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) on international aid, instead aiming for 0.5 percent. The government claims this is a temporary suspension but gave no indication as to when it might be reinstated. This claim was met with derision by many, as the right wing of the Conservative Party has dreamed of doing it for ages. The timing — at the moment of greatest need — appears callous, and it comes after much criticism of the government’s decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office in the summer.
The aid cut engendered a high-profile cast list of political opponents, including five former prime ministers — Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major — as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and more than 200 charities and nongovernmental organizations. A government minister also resigned. They argue that it is not just a moral imperative, but is also in Britain’s national self-interest, as being a major donor has proved a useful tool of soft power. What irks many is that the decision followed a government announcement of an increase in military spending of £16.5 billion ($21.9 billion) over four years, a rise of more than 10 percent.
Who would bet on other donor states not following suit and reducing their aid budgets to assuage domestic concerns?
In fairness to the UK, it was the only one of the G7 economies delivering on that 0.7 percent commitment. France is only committed to reaching 0.55 percent of GNI by 2022. Germany is only on 0.6 percent, Italy a miserly 0.24 percent, and Japan is at 0.29 percent, while the world’s largest overseas donor, the US, contributes just 0.16 percent of its GNI — and that was with Congress rejecting President Donald Trump’s proposed aid cuts. By dropping to 0.5 percent, the UK may not be at the top, but it will remain high up the rankings. What is sad is that so few countries deliver on their promises to the poor. And the amount of pledged funds will inevitably decline for no other reason than the richer economies are shrinking.
The Trump administration has been openly hostile to overseas aid. It was not something that chimed with its “America First” approach. The incoming Biden administration will be expected to return aid expenditure to higher levels and, in the case of the Palestinians, restore funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency and other programs.
Development aid could be far better targeted, smarter, speedier, and less bureaucratic.
Defeating this pandemic will also require assisting poorer countries in their efforts. This is in the interests of richer countries if they wish to halt the spread of the virus and also not be saddled with bailing out failing states. The World Bank estimates that the pandemic will leave an additional 88 to 115 million people in extreme poverty in 2020. Many of these newly impoverished people would have been in full-time jobs at the start of the year. The situation is, as ever, sadly at its most acute in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization says that Africa is ill-prepared to roll out what will have to be the continent’s largest ever immunization drive. Much work needs to be done to identify those who are most at risk and should get the vaccine first.
Aid needs to be seen differently to shield it from the populist leaders who just want to slash the budget. They highlight occasional absurd aid expenditures but, rather than seeking to improve aid efficacy, just want to get rid of it all. The money has to be made to go further. Development aid could be far better targeted, smarter, speedier, and less bureaucratic. It should also be focused solely on the neediest, not underhand political agendas. For example, a significant portion of EU aid is directed to stemming migration flows. Is this aid or just an attempt to nakedly push EU interests? Even then, studies indicate that aid has not been the cause of any slowing of migration. Above all, those who make these often-hazardous journeys are typically not the poorest, but are those with resources.
Richer countries could do so much more to prevent and reduce conflict. Development assistance, in concert with conflict prevention, could achieve a decline in violence if properly implemented. Overseas aid is cheaper than wars and should be seen as a means to reduce the likelihood of military engagements, and therefore avoid the need for larger defense budgets. Britain spent £1.4 billion on aid to Syria between 2012 and the end of 2019, while in 2019 it spent £260 million on Yemen alone. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan and the Palestinians are also in desperate need of more assistance.
Syrians, Libyans and Iraqis, for example, have frequently joined armed militias precisely because of the lack of job opportunities and sources of income. Sustainable development aid should be about filling this gap and reducing the allure of such armed groups. Extremist groups will seek to prosper in areas where development aid is cut.
The pandemic should not be a reason to slash aid budgets, but rather to raise them. It should be a time to reconsider how aid is spent and ensure that funds get to those most in need, rather than siphoned off by corrupt regimes. Given how the world failed to come together to combat the pandemic, one can only hope that rich countries and organizations will change tack and work together to fight its consequences.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech