Why is the UK reducing its overseas aid at a time when the world needs it the most?

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in June 1971, the British foreign secretary said that Britain would not provide aid to the Pakistan government but would respond to the needs of the Bangladeshi refugees in Indian refugee camps. At that time, as I witnessed, a cholera epidemic, in virulent form, had broken out in the camps.

Fifty years later, Britain has become the only member of the G7 countries to announce a reduction to its overseas aid budget citing economic problems at home caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Britain’s overseas aid program helping the extreme poor to stand on their own feet has, for many years, been regarded positively by many observers, and I am very pleased to have been associated with the British aid program in Bangladesh and India for more than 50 years. 

To cut the annual budget from 15 billion pounds to 10 billion pounds will cause untold suffering and death to hundreds of thousands of extreme poor families in many countries. Reading about some of the cuts is difficult to accept. At a time when famine and death is taking place in Yemen, and it is regarded as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Britain’s annual support there is, reportedly, being cut by 56% from 197m pounds to 87m pounds. 

All over the world, children have been badly affected by the pandemic and yet, at this time, Britain’s contribution to Unicef is being cut by 60%. It is very difficult to understand or accept.

At a time when Britain is hosting a G7 meeting in Cornwall, England, it is worth recalling that it was in the late 1970s that the British parliament made a commitment to reach the UN aid target of 0.7% of gross national income. As Sir Peter Bottomley, Father of the House in the British House of Commons, has pointed it out, it took Britain 39 years to reach this target. The “proud” commitment of 0.7% for overseas aid was in the Conservative’s last election manifesto, but now the British government’s pledge to “leave no one behind” sounds meaningless. 

Here in Bangladesh, the British aid cuts will, reportedly, reduce the annual contribution to the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis by 42%. Another example is that it was reported last month that a 13 million pound project providing health care services in remote areas of Bangladesh was going to be entirely cancelled “with immediate effect,” according to Concern Worldwide. 

The cut means the project cannot respond to an emerging outbreak of diarrheal disease, so “it is likely that this decision to cut funding will result in preventable deaths,” according to the charity.

At a time when the British prime minister is expected to be beating the drum at the G7 meeting regarding funds for climate change and vaccines, it would appear that the lives of millions of the extreme poor are not important. 

Decades of work with the extreme poor in Bangladesh is being abandoned. It is very difficult to understand or accept.

More than 50 years ago in Bihar, India, along with Oxfam colleagues, I accompanied the then British minister for overseas development, Judith Hart, on a visit to some of the poorest people in India, who, at that time were recovering from a devastating famine. As a result of her experience in early 1970, a joint “matching” funding scheme with British NGOs working overseas was established. 

It now appears that imaginative ideas and approaches of many years ago have no value, and the lives of the extreme poor are not at all important. That is a desperately sad feeling.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.



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