As published in the Evening Standard:
Former US defence secretary James Mattis told Donald Trump that “the more you cut aid, the more I have to spend on ammunition”. But he also told his troops in Afghanistan, “if in order to kill the enemy, you have to kill an innocent, don’t take the shot. Don’t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act”. It’s in that context that I see the Government’s plan to cut foreign aid. It is, in my view, both illogical and immoral.
As refugees stream across the borders of Ethiopia and Sudan they face ending up in one of three places.
With just the clothes on their back, they will settle into refugee camps and wait out the horrors of the conflict they have fled. Or they will be forced into the arms of local militia and violent extremists, with no choice but to fight and commit atrocities to feed themselves and their families. Or their last unpalatable option will be to make their way north, almost certainly through Libya, and then make a life-or-death crossing of the Mediterranean.
We know that desperate people do desperate things.
During the pandemic we have been largely confined to staycations and taking advantage of airbridges. But around the world people are still on the move. Added to the traditional drivers of migration from the developing world — war and famine, violence and hunger — comes Covid-19 and climate change.
On the Horn of Africa, the epicentre of instability may be Ethiopia but it threatens to ripple through Eritrea and Somalia into Kenya and Tanzania because the virus and locust plagues have ravaged livestock and livelihood. Fertile ground for Al-Shabaab to thrive, recruit and revive their murderous endeavours.
To the west, across the Sahel, droughts in the summer and floods in the winter have already caused conflict over resources. And in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s reign of terror continues to persist.
The Global Terrorism Index 2020 shows that seven of the 10 countries with the largest increases in terrorism are in sub-Saharan Africa.
That these events are not on the evening news does not make them any less a threat to us. And while the tragedies at home — of Covid-19 deaths, job losses, loneliness and mental health — are our primary concern, just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
The fact is the less we invest through foreign aid, the more we will see foreign migration.
Africa need not be a source of threat to Britain and is already a place of huge opportunity.
African presidents came to London for the UK-Africa Investment Summit at the start of this year and it was foreign aid investment which unlocked billions in business deals. It is in our own national economic interest to reverse the Mercator projection illusion.
Africa is bigger than we think and is destined to enormously influence the future of the world. Its population will rise by more than a billion by 2050, accounting for 60 per cent of the world’s population growth.
If we do not use aid to educate girls, boost economic growth through trade and assist African leaders in raising the living standards of their people, we will be missing out on a massive opportunity.
If we cut foreign aid now, China will move in as we move out. It is happening already as African governments become indebted to China, not just through state debt financing but through infrastructure projects.
As a Foreign Office minister in the mid-Nineties, I saw dramatic changes following the fall of the Berlin Wall that could potentially be dwarfed in historical significance by the combination of Covid-19, climate change and the rise of China.
As a former chairman of the public accounts committee, I’m under no illusions about the cost of misusing public money but I have also seen the price we pay when we fail to invest in Britain’s global interests. And as Brexit secretary, I saw first-hand the way that third countries value the UK’s role in international development.
We live in an unstable world. Russia is increasingly unpredictable. China is increasingly assertive. And Africa will increase in geo-political significance.
Although I disagreed with David Cameron, when he put the aid budget up by a third in 2013, I agree with him now that cutting it by a third in 2020 is “not a promise we need to break”.
As Andrew Mitchell said to Parliament, it is a choice that will costs tens of thousands of children’s lives. But it was James Mattis who said: “The most important six inches on the battlefield are between your ears.” And cutting aid now is an idea that makes no sense to my heart or my mind.