The false economy of cutting aid

Cynical penny-pinching will come at a cost, not only for British diplomacy but at the ballot box too

June 07, 2021
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are convinced that slashing the aid budget is popular. Photo: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are convinced that slashing the aid budget is popular. Photo: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

Treasury ministers passing Conservative MPs in the corridors at Westminster have started to whisper “18 per cent” quietly in their ears. This is the proportion of voters who believe the government is wrong to cut foreign aid, according to one YouGov poll. The figure for Conservative voters is just 3 per cent, the survey last year found.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are convinced that the decision to temporarily abandon the pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid while dealing with the impact of the coronavirus crisis is popular. The prime minister and the chancellor are pressing ahead with the cut—despite opposition from every living prime minister and rebel Tories who are threatening to defeat the government today—because they think it has wide public support, particularly in the northern “red wall” seats that were won from Labour at the last general election. This is a political rather than an economic decision.

The rebellion is deeply embarrassing ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall, where a major theme will be the need for wealthy countries to help poorer ones to cope with the pandemic. But focus group research suggests that public opinion is more nuanced: there is greater underlying hostility to the aid cuts than the headline poll figures indicate.

I recently joined two focus groups funded by Save the Children and organised by Public First, the research company set up by Rachel Wolf, who wrote the last Conservative manifesto. The groups were made up of Tory voters in Esher and Walton and Reading West, the seats held by Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, and Alok Sharma, the president of the climate change summit COP26. If these Conservatives are at all representative, ministers should be worried. The more they thought about the decision to slash the aid budget the more concerned they got.

In both constituencies, the focus group participants were initially divided about whether or not the government should be spending so much on aid. Several felt right from the start that the UK had a duty to “help those countries that are less fortunate” because, as one participant put it, “it’s about helping your fellow human beings.” Others were instinctively in favour of prioritising spending closer to home.

But when these Tory voters were shown footage of the people who would suffer and told which education, health and research programmes would be axed, even those who were initially sceptical about the international development budget became outraged. By the end of the sessions there was almost universal opposition to the cuts.

Les, in Esher and Walton, was typical of the shift. At the beginning of the focus group, he argued that “we should put our own house in order before we start shipping out billions of foreign aid.” Echoing the chancellor, he insisted: “We’ve borrowed a fortune, how are we going to pay it back? There have to be cuts somewhere.” But as he saw the effect that the cuts would have on the ground, his views started to change. “The impact is quite dramatic,” he said. “It doesn’t seem quite right.”

He also disliked the idea that the Tory party was reneging on a manifesto commitment he had voted for. “If it’s enshrined in law that we pay 0.7 per cent then we should pay 0.7 per cent. Changing laws to suit you doesn’t quite smell right. This little bit of cutting foreign aid isn’t going to get the country through.” By the end of the group he was railing against a government saying “we’re going to look after our own,” adding for good measure that “this seems to be being run on the back of some sort of Brexit nationalism.”

Sam, a mother of two, went on a similar journey. Having started off worrying about the effect of the pandemic on people in this country—“that’s the aid that’s needed”—she concluded: “I take back everything I said.” She was particularly offended by the cuts to girls’ education. “You are making this commitment to a child. I feel I should be asking more questions. I’m pretty sure they could find the money from elsewhere.” Sofia declared the cut to be “not acceptable, it’s morally just not OK. I feel like it’s being done undercover, then everyone is going to be outraged and it will be too late.”

The conversation in Reading West had an almost identical trajectory. Maria, who at the start of the group insisted that “charity starts at home,” ended up concluding that: “the government needs to explain to the British people what the aid is used for and the British people should decide.” Bill began by declaring that the government would be “irresponsible not to look at cutting where you can.” After seeing the interviews with aid workers who would have to make less funding go further, he admitted he had not understood the full consequences of the cut. “I’ve realised now there’s a hell of a lot more to it... You have to honour it. Now that I’ve seen it, it’s changed my perception.”

The gathering rebellion suggests that the prime minister and the chancellor might have spectacularly misjudged the issue of aid cuts. The former PM John Major is right that it is not “morally defensible to ease our own financial burden at the expense of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.” The reduction in the aid budget will mean funding is withdrawn for life-saving clean water projects, hunger relief, education and vital family planning work. Few doubt that the cuts will lead to great suffering and thousands of deaths.

There is also a diplomatic argument against the abandonment of the 0.7 per cent pledge. Britain should be using its soft power, and projecting a positive image around the world after Brexit, rather than retreating from its role as a champion of international development.

The focus groups prove that the reduction in the aid budget could also be politically foolish. Taken in combination with their equally misguided decision not to fund a proper education recovery plan at home, which triggered the resignation of adviser Kevan Collins last week, Johnson and Sunak are rapidly undermining years of work to reverse negative perceptions of the Conservative Party.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary who is organising the Tory rebellion with military precision, says the prime minister is putting at risk the Conservatives’ election-winning coalition. “It took 23 years” after John Major’s own Tory win in 1992, “to get a majority back in 2015 and we got that majority back because David Cameron widened the Tory Party DNA,” he says. “Decent liberal-minded people could vote Conservative because the Tory party was saying sensible things about British aid and internationalism. Boris Johnson has been brilliant in attracting support within the red wall seats but is now in danger of alienating the socially liberal people on the other end of the spectrum who we need to hold on to.”

One member of the Reading West focus group proved the point. “David Cameron had a kinder heart than Boris Johnson,” she said. “Boris is much more, ‘I’m alright mate, shame about you,’ and that’s not going to do as well in the long run.” She voted Conservative in 2019, but is now undecided about which party she will support next time.