It has been one of those weeks when editors have been spoiled for choice as to what leads their newspapers. To name just a few: the most extraordinary budget in living memory; a crisis at Buckingham Palace that some say rivals the abdication of Edward VIII; political drama in Edinburgh that could, in the long run, profoundly affect the future of the United Kingdom. Even the idiocy of a racing trainer sitting astride a dead horse and smiling on his mobile phone. What has not made the front pages is that Britain is cutting in half the aid it gives to Yemen. This is a country ravaged by a civil war to which our own country has contributed by selling arms to one side. The effect of the war is that Yemen is facing a massive famine likely to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. Is the cut defensible?
In the Budget, the Chancellor stuck by pledges made in the last Conservative manifesto not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT. But he had already persuaded the Prime Minister to renege on another manifesto commitment: to maintain the level of Britain’s overseas aid budget at 0.7% of the country’s national income. Back in November it was slashed to 0.5%, saving £4bn. The halving of the money being sent to Yemen is just the latest consequence of that broken promise.
Britain’s foreign aid policy, and especially the 0.7% commitment, has long been contentious. The figure itself was adopted by the United Nations as the goal individual countries should aim for in budgeting for foreign aid, although few have achieved it. When David Cameron’s government went further, not only reaching the goal but enshrining commitment to it in law, his critics accused him of tokenism, even of virtue-signalling. Their case was that foreign aid should be determined not by adherence to some arbitrary figure but by the merits of individual projects. And they argued that foreign aid had too often in the past failed to achieve the purposes for which it was intended, instead being either corruptly creamed off by the governing elites in recipient countries or wasted on white elephants: the building of airports on islands where planes seldom flew was frequently cited as an example.
Those who defend foreign aid acknowledge that there have been real problems. They say that if it is to do its job properly there are two essential conditions. One is there must be stability. There needs to be a government department that has built up expertise over time in the deployment of aid, especially on long-term projects, so that the money would not be wasted. Aid cannot be something that is offered today and withdrawn tomorrow. It is, of its essence, long term. That was the job with which the Department for International Development (DfID) was charged. It had its own cabinet minister and its supporters claimed it had won a reputation around the world for delivering the goods.
Those supporters also argue that Britain’s foreign aid policy, including the 0.7% commitment, was not only vitally important for many countries in the developing world, but were good for Britain too. That’s because it expanded our ‘soft power’ internationally. And, they add, promoting such soft power was even more important for a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’.
But Boris Johnson thinks differently. Last year he abolished DfID. Or, as he would put it, he amalgamated it with the Foreign Office, taking away the seat at the cabinet table that had been occupied by the international development secretary. From now on, aid would be represented in cabinet solely by the Foreign Secretary, the overall boss of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The former prime minister David Cameron told a joint committee of MPs and peers on Monday that had been a mistake. He said: ‘Can you reasonably expect the foreign secretary to be able to do all the diplomatic stuff and be able to speak to the development brief as well? That’s quite a task, so I think it is good to have both.’
On the same day, James Cleverly, the minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa, told a UN donors’ conference that Britain was cutting its aid to Yemen for the year up to March 2022 to £87m. That’s almost half the £164m that had been promised this year. He said that ‘recent global challenges’ meant there was now ‘a difficult financial context for all of us’. This echoed what the Chancellor had said back in November when he announced the cut in the overall aid budget. He was doing it, he said, because of a ‘domestic fiscal emergency’. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, defended the cut to the Yemeni aid by pointing out that Britain’s total aid to the country already exceeded £1bn and that ‘we reman, as we have done over the past five years, between the third- and fifth-highest donors into Yemen’.
But Andrew Mitchell, the former Development Secretary in Mr Cameron’s government told the Commons this week: ‘Everyone in this house knows that the cut to the 0.7 is not a result of tough choices, it is a strategic mistake with deadly consequences’. He went on to say the aid cut to Yemen was a ‘harbinger of terrible cuts to come’. And his Conservative colleague, Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said that although he acknowledged Britain’s aid contribution to Yemen was still ‘generous’, the resulting gap in aid would leave people suffering.
According to the United Nations international aid to Yemen in total has been falling dramatically recently: from $5bn in 2018 to $2bn in 2020. But as aid has been falling, the need for it has been rising precipitously. Yemen is suffering from the consequences of a six-year-long civil war. It was one of three countries, along with Syria and South Sudan, singled out this week by Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee, a collective of aid charities, as facing a ‘dire humanitarian’ situation. The UN says that two-thirds of the population, or twenty million people, are now dependent on some sort of aid and that two million children are already acutely malnourished. Sir Mark Lowcock, the UN’s chief humanitarian officer, said: ‘Yemen is speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades, as malnutrition rates hit record highs’.
The UN describes the situation as the worst ‘man-made’ humanitarian crisis the world faces.
That phrase ‘man-made’ is crucial. It lies in the fact that the crisis is due not just to the fact of the civil war but that the war has been turned into a bigger power game by the involvement of outside forces taking different sides. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both using Yemen as a battleground for their wider struggle for supremacy. The starving population and the dying children are what dispassionate military types tend to call ‘collateral damage’. It is what others call a shameful betrayal of wholly innocent human beings.
It is in this context that critics say the cut in Britain’s aid to Yemen should be seen. During the course of the civil war Britain, along with other countries including the United States under Donald Trump, has been selling billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Andrew Mitchell says this makes Britain ‘complicit’ in causing a catastrophe in which millions are suffering in a country to which we are now halving our humanitarian aid. The new American president, Joe Biden, has withdrawn US support for the Saudi coalition fighting in Yemen. Britain has so far refused to do so. Mr Mitchell said: ‘We are complicit in what is happening on the ground because we are part of the Saudi coalition and so we cannot wash our hands of that. If we are serious about resolving this conflict we should be more aligned to the new US strategy.’
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chairman of the defence committee said of the cut to the Yemeni aid budget that Britain had failed the ‘first test of what post-Brexit global Britain means in practice’. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said that cutting aid to Yemen amounted to passing a ‘death sentence’.
So is the halving of aid to Yemen defensible or disgraceful? Let us know what you think.