LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly avoided the opportunity to allay fears over potential cuts to the U.K. aid budget on Thursday.
Speaking to parliamentarians while announcing an increase in defense spending, Johnson missed at least five direct chances to address concerns that the budget — currently tied by law to 0.7% of gross national income — will be reduced to 0.5% of GNI.
Recent media reports have suggested that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is considering cutting the official development assistance budget amid a massive deficit in the public finances.
Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was one of several politicians who urged Johnson not to cut the aid budget. “Even a temporary cut will create an enormous clamor of people who say we should not go back to it [0.7%] … I know he [Johnson] would not want to send the wrong signal out to the world about our values as a country,” he said.
Citing national security concerns, the U.K. government says foreigners will not be able to work at FCDO.
Johnson responded that “the people of this country will continue to be world leaders in giving aid” but did not mention specific figures.
Johnson has previously insisted there would be no changes to the 0.7% commitment, which is also a Conservative Party election manifesto promise.
It came as the prime minister announced a massive boost to defense spending of £16.5 billion ($21.8 million) over the next four years. Johnson maintained that investing in defense would have strong development outcomes, particularly in Africa, but did not articulate how, saying only that it would allow the U.K. “the scope to do more” with its contribution to peacekeeping.
Johnson said: “By investing in armed services, you can do some of the greatest things for the poorest and neediest people around the world. Travelling around the world to countries that are in real distress, I often have found the single export they crave most is the help and reassurance and security that comes from British armed services. That’s one of the reasons — helping to keep our world safe is a huge part of this agenda.”
He later added that the defense spending would “help us to step up our commitment to Africa.”
Conflict prevention experts were unconvinced. “Investing in human rights, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding are crucial to addressing insecurity overseas,” said Lewis Brooks, U.K. policy and advocacy coordinator at Saferworld. “Increases in defence spending without a clear commitment to a development approach will leave the government without the tools to address global security challenges facing the UK.”