International co-operation is vital to solve global problems. So why has Britain retreated?

By cutting the aid budget, the government has surrendered our moral authority

October 25, 2021
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Little long-term focus: Liz Truss is now the seventh Cabinet member in just five years to oversee the UK aid budget. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The pandemic has changed our world forever. Four and a half million people have died. One hundred and fifty million more are at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty. With three billion people still without basic handwashing facilities, and half the world’s population unable to access essential health services, we cannot afford to return to “normal.”

The past 18 months show that the crises we face around the world—from Covid-19 to climate breakdown, or the humanitarian emergencies in Tigray, Yemen and Afghanistan—are profoundly interconnected. To vaccinate the world, cut emissions or build long-term peace we require concerted international co-operation. Britain cannot go it alone.

Yet instead of stepping up, Boris Johnson’s “global Britain” retreated. He shut down the globally-respected Department for International Development. Twice, he cut Britain’s aid budget, leading former development secretary Andrew Mitchell to warn that “hundreds of thousands of people” would die. No wonder there is so little long-term focus or purpose: Liz Truss is now the seventh Cabinet member in just five years to oversee the UK aid budget.

Make no mistake, Britain has surrendered its moral authority. That is why Johnson could not galvanise G7 leaders into action as host of a lacklustre summit in Cornwall this June—and why he could yet do worse damage as host of November’s climate conference. Nor will the shameful debacle in Afghanistan be quickly forgotten by Britain’s allies or enemies. The truth is that behind the bombast, on every front, this government retreats. On its watch, global Britain is shrinking.

It does not need to be this way. Nor would it be under a Labour government. First, we will bring Britain back to the international table as a serious, trusted partner. Immediately that means playing our part in tackling Covid-19, the climate emergency and growing inequality—starting with action to reverse aid cuts, cancel unjust debts, curb tax avoidance and ramp up vaccine manufacturing. In the longer term, it means getting back on track to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals by 2030. In the first days of his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer pledged to make Labour “a force for international peace and justice.” With authority renewed, Britain could again help solve global problems.

Second, we will use taxpayers’ money—including our aid budget—more effectively and transparently. Public investment intended to reduce poverty and tackle the global problems that affect us all must not be diverted, as it is under the Conservatives, towards short-term business or diplomatic interests. To manage this public investment effectively and maximise our impact, we will rebuild the government’s development expertise, restore aid spending to 0.7 per cent of national income and work in partnership with state and non-state actors to share local expertise and skills to solve problems we cannot tackle alone.

Third, Labour will back the public’s spirit of solidarity unleashed during the pandemic, and place it at the heart of how we co-operate internationally. In the last year and a half I’ve listened to people from very different backgrounds talk about what it means to be British and what kind of country they want to live in. Many of us helped neighbours, set up mutual aid groups, or volunteered locally. Others campaigned for equal access to vaccines in other countries, or for better support for the Afghan people. Many more now regularly give their time or money to causes. When we stand in solidarity with others to ensure no one is left behind, Britain is at its very best.

We can yet turn the tide on the global crises in front of us. As the UN secretary general put it, we can still choose a “breakthrough” rather than a “breakdown.” But first the British people deserve a government that will return to the international stage—and fight to make it happen.