As published in the Times Red Box
We need to balance the books, but we can’t do it on the backs of the world’s poorest people. The Times front page on Monday highlighted how mad Treasury accounting rules divert money from the aid budget, almost certainly at the cost of thousands of children’s lives.
While Europe deals with the consequences of unimaginable energy prices caused by President Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine, 50 million people living in the Horn of Africa are experiencing their worst drought for 40 years. Any day now, the UN will declare an official famine but without an urgent response from the West, history could look back on a humanitarian catastrophe while the UK and others were distracted.
Surging inflation in the aftermath of Covid, droughts and floods caused by climate change and the shock to energy markets caused by war in Europe have put a strain on all of us. But it is the world’s poorest, wherever they live, who are at the sharpest end.
Securing our energy supplies, helping the most vulnerable with their rising bills and continuing to arm the heroic defenders of Ukraine are all necessary, but insufficient, as a response from a global power such as Britain. These things all cost money, but it was wrong for us to cut our aid budget during the pandemic and allow lives to be lost in refugee camps because they weren’t making the news.
Now the TV cameras have arrived and we are seeing the disastrous consequences of inaction. It is not too late to make a difference, but for millions of children, time is running out.
The poorest in societies across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are looking to nations with vastly different resources for help. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have both a role to play and a responsibility to step up, above all, in Afghanistan. A year since the withdrawal of British troops, nine out of ten children have less to eat than they did last year. While British hotels remain full of Afghan refugees and over 100,000 Ukrainians have found refuge in spare bedrooms across our country, we have not done enough over the last few years to get ahead of these problems, beyond our shores.
But the crisis is most acute in the Horn of Africa, where years of drought and a grain shortage caused by the invasion of Ukraine has created a dire situation. Already a million people have had to abandon their homes and fled to refugee camps. More than seven million children are currently acutely malnourished, according to Save the Children, who estimate that 350,000 children will die from malnutrition in Somalia.
The UN’s appeal to provide live-saving assistance to almost 30 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia has only raised 2 per cent of what it has called for. If we want to prevent further crises from happening again, we must work with other G7 countries to tackle the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition. This means not only having the warning systems in place but acting on those warnings before a crisis hits. Sadly, the UK has been missing in action.
The chancellor needs to provide funds but the foreign secretary needs to take the lead and change our approach. As a junior foreign minister he was unfortunately left to carry the can for cuts to our aid to Yemen: quite literally taking food from the plates of starving children. Reports suggesting that the UK aid budget will be cut further and that the return to 0.7 per cent GNI will be pushed into the next parliament suggest he may be required to do so again.
You can’t balance the books on the back of the world’s poor. Cutting costs by ending the lives of impoverished children is simply intolerable. The aid budget has already been subject to successive cuts: first when the economy contracted because of Covid, then cut temporarily to 0.5 per cent, then cut again to fund the sharing of surplus Covid vaccines, then again to cover the costs of refugees resettling in the UK from Ukraine. Now it is being depleted even further to pay for Home Office failures.
The eyes of the world are watching as the UK fails to fulfil our global role: we were the only G7 country to cut aid during the pandemic, now we are failing to provide the funding expected of us in response to floods in Pakistan, the drought in Somalia and the hunger crisis across the developing world. We can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.