LONDON — A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office minister resigned on Wednesday as the United Kingdom’s Conservative government faced a significant rebellion over breaking its legal commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid.
Elizabeth Sugg, who was minister for overseas territories and sustainable development and special envoy for girls’ education — a priority area of government development policy — said she “cannot support or defend” the decision to lower the aid budget to 0.5% of GNI.
In her resignation letter she wrote: “I believe it is fundamentally wrong to abandon our commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development. This promise should be kept in the tough times as well as the good … 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.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that the foreign aid budget would be cut as part of his spending review for 2021. The value of the budget, which is tied to the country’s gross national income, had already fallen as a result of the pandemic. Sunak pledged to return to spending 0.7% on aid “when the fiscal situation allows.”
As well as Sugg, prime ministers, secretaries of state, and backbench Conservative MPs were among those who kicked back against the government’s decision, saying it was a breach of the party’s commitments — maintaining the 0.7% spending target was a Conservative manifesto pledge — and would undermine the U.K.’s international position.
The U.K. aid budget is expected to be around £10 billion ($13 million) next year.
David Cameron, who led the government that introduced the 0.7% target in 2015, said the pledge “said something great about Britain … we were actually going to do something about [global challenges], we were going to lead, we were going to show the rest of the world ... and I think it's sad we’re standing back from that.”
Jeremy Hunt, MP for South West Surrey and former foreign secretary, asked Sunak if he recognized that “the respect felt for this country around the world is because we have championed causes throughout our history that matter to people everywhere?”
He continued: “One of those causes is tackling extreme poverty. So to cut our aid budget by a third in the year when millions more will fall into extreme poverty will make not just them poorer, but us poorer in [the] eyes of the world, because people will worry we are abandoning a noble ideal — that we in this country have done more to champion than anyone else.”
Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield and former secretary of state for international development, said the cuts would “be the cause of 100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children.”
And Harriett Baldwin, MP for West Worcestershire and a former minister of state for Africa and international development, said she felt “ashamed that the only manifesto pledge we are breaking today is our promise to the world's poorest.”
The move also drew opposition from MPs who had been campaigning for an increase in the defense budget, which the prime minister announced last week and which some felt came at a cost to the aid budget.
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, highlighted the “new era of Western leadership” brought about by the election of United States President-elect Joe Biden.
“Here we are, about to mark the start of our G-7 presidency by cutting our overseas aid budget. Downgrading our soft power programs will leave vacuums in some of the poorest parts of the world that will further poverty and instability and is likely to see China and indeed Russia extending their authoritarian influence by taking our place.”
Backbench Conservative MP Pauline Latham also told Devex she was “very disappointed” at the decision and that there was the prospect of a rebellion against the government.
Latham said: “There’s so much humanitarian aid required now [because of ongoing global crises] that a lot of the [remaining official development spending] funding will have to go on that. And yet we were hoping with hosting COP26 [next year] that we would be spending a lot of money to help to prevent the problems for the poorest and most vulnerable though climate change. I guess that's going to be a bit on the backburner now.”