Last week, the UK Government brought a vote to the House of Commons to ratify its plans to cut international aid to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
The cut in aid – which will see the UK Government going back on its commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid - breaks a promise made to the electorate by the Conservatives, who in common with the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, had committed to maintaining UK aid spending at this proportion in their party election manifesto.
It was claimed several times during the debate that because it was a Conservative government that had first achieved the 0.7% target, that any criticisms of a failure to maintain it were therefore invalid. Ministers also appeared not to understand that if the size of the economy were shrinking, then an aid budget calculated as a percentage of the size of the economy would also shrink without the need for Government to make any further reductions.
At this time of global pandemic, we see how deeply interconnected our world really is. Virus suppression through vaccination is the only effective way we have right now to reduce the risks of new variants emerging. Not one of us is truly safe until we are all safe, wherever in the world we happen to live.
Cuts to international aid not only leave people in poorer countries exposed to the virus, they also help prolong the pandemic. However, the development challenges that many parts of our world faced – whether in terms of ensuring clean water and sanitation; providing improved education, particularly for girls; and tackling other diseases such as polio – sadly have not gone away in the interim.
It spoke volumes that the planned cuts were opposed by every living Labour and Conservative former Prime Minister, and were even voted against by Theresa May, breaking a Three-Line Whip in the process. Nevertheless, the UK Government pushed through their plans by a comfortable margin, helped by the votes of every Scottish Conservative MP, including their two Aberdeenshire representatives.
The respected international aid organisation Oxfam has said there are more people in the world today in need of humanitarian assistance than at any time since 1945. They described last week’s vote in the Commons as a “disaster for the world’s poorest”.
In a scathing assessment of the vote, Christian Aid described it as “reckless”. The Church of Scotland, which first proposed a global minimum for aid from the world’s richest countries in 1958 and has spent 60 years campaigning for it was equally forthright, described it as a “moral failure by the UK Government”.
As one of the world’s richest countries, we have an obligation to help others as we can and that 0.7% target was a modest symbol of our willingness to do so. While a commitment to aid spending is not the preserve of any one party, it seems clear that we have a UK Government which is not only unable but also now unwilling to stand up for the values of internationalism and fairness which are still held dear by many in Scotland today.