The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on Overseas Development Aid (ODA) on 15th December 2022, with particular reference to famine in the Horn of Africa, urging the government against cutting back on aid:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, for his excellent introduction, which was informed and passionate. I would also like to highlight and underline my deep regret at His Majesty’s Government’s cuts to official development assistance spending.
I find myself in touch weekly with some of the poverty here in our own country as I visit food banks, debt advice centres, or the clubs that some of our churches now run to give breakfast to schoolchildren. I am acutely aware that we have real need here in our own country, but it is of a completely different order compared with what many other countries in the world face. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, that we need to spend our aid carefully. It is actually quite difficult to spend large amounts of money. We sometimes find it difficult in this country and sometimes people do not spend it well. Of course we need to work at that, but the answer is not to cut our aid but to make sure that we are using it in the most effective way.
This is not just about long-term development. We are cutting our spending at a time when we are seeing some of the most appalling famines facing our world since the 1980s. I refer in particular to the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. Early on, that was compounded by terrible swarms of locusts, which simply devastated the crops, and it has been made even worse by the civil war going on in some of those countries. As a result, more than 50 million people across east Africa are now suffering from acute food insecurity.
This is made even worse because of other diseases. We just heard the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, expand the point about HIV/AIDS brilliantly. Of course, where there is real famine, that disease can be fatal. There are also the well-known—actually, they are not well-known—neglected tropical diseases such as leprosy, rabies, dengue fever and Guinea worm disease. Such diseases are treatable in this country but, in a context where people are suffering from famine, many malnourished people die from them.
In the past, the UK has stepped up to the table when we have faced similar situations. In 2017, the UK spearheaded action that helped avert a famine in east Africa, providing £700 million to the region. However, this year, despite the severe conditions, our commitment to the region has been reduced by £156 million. A few weeks ago, I tabled a series of Written Questions naming each of the main countries in the Horn of Africa and asking what our support in development aid has been over each of the past five years. The Answers made for salutary reading. There have been massive cuts not just to development programmes but to simple aid to save lives. Only 65% of the money allocated has been spent. We need greater certainty to get this money where it is needed. As the crisis is getting worse, we are providing less. We all acknowledge that the current crisis is a global crisis compounded by President Putin’s war in Ukraine and the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, in the face of such challenges, some of our neighbouring countries, such as France, Italy and Germany, have increased their ODA commitments, while we reduce ours.
If we are not persuaded that increasing our spending is the right and moral thing to do when whole communities are starving, we just need to look at some of the practical issues around what happens when we withdraw from helping others. In the Central African Republic, Russia and China have been steadily intensifying their efforts across the region. Right now, a Russian Government-linked private military corporation, the Wagner Group, is conducting military operations in Mali—admittedly in west Africa—to secure uranium, gold and diamond contracts to fund the war in Ukraine. How much longer will it be before these and other countries move into east Africa as we withdraw? The catastrophe in Somalia has allowed the nation to become a hotbed of terrorism. Al-Shabaab has been able to recruit more people from among those spurred on by hunger and dissatisfaction with the Government.
So, feeding people who are starving is not just a practical and moral issue. If we are not engaging, we are opening up places to much more unscrupulous Governments and regimes moving in and taking advantage. This is a vital part of our presence on the world scene. Across the world, many nations are jostling to establish themselves as global leaders. The danger is that we are simply withdrawing. Responding to issues at home is of course important—we all need to make cuts in doing so, and cope with the rising cost of energy together—but we cannot do it in a world where the challenges are so much greater. The 0.2% of our GNI is a drop in the ocean when compared with the Government’s borrowing elsewhere. Of course we must be prudent here at home and look after our own poor, but this is neither the time nor the place to cut back on our commitments to the wider world when we face such terrible catastrophes right across the globe.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): As we know—I have listened to much of the criticism this afternoon—the UK’s ODA budget now sits at around 0.5% of GNI. Points were raised very passionately, not least by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. I would like to add a little balance, which chimes with the remarks of my noble friends Lord Herbert and Lord Hannan. In providing this balance, I will answer a question asked by my noble friend Lady Hodgson. In 2021, the amount we spent was over £11 billion, making us still one of the most generous aid donors in the G7. That is equivalent to half the cost of what it took to build the Elizabeth line. No one can deny that this funding is generous.
Added to this is the British public’s enormous support for the people fleeing conflict and seeking sanctuary here from Afghanistan and Ukraine. To meet the significant and unanticipated costs of this support, the Treasury will provide additional resources of £1 billion this financial year and £1.5 billion next financial year. We continue to pledge our steadfast support for Ukraine. It is right that the UK rises to meet these challenges by allocating additional resources. The FCDO is the largest aid spender across government, spending 72% of all UK government ODA in 2021. Given these pressures, the FCDO will have to manage a lower ODA budget than it was allocated in the spending review 2021 settlement.
With this, we are reminded that there are very difficult choices for the Government to make about how to manage this reduction—which, again, a few Peers have said this afternoon. However, I hope to reassure the House that we do have a plan.
I am aware that time is moving on. There are questions that I am yet to answer, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on ODA and HIV, and I am certainly going to write to him with the answer, which I do actually have here. I have an answer for the question about dengue fever raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans; I think it is better to put that in writing. I will also answer the question about charities raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington; again, I think it is best to put that in a letter.
The UK remains one of the largest donors of official development assistance in the world. We magnify the impact of our budget in a number of ways: we attract funding from other donors and investors, we spend smartly on innovative expert-led projects with a wide reach, and we focus where we can have the most impact and positive effect on peoples’ lives. I cite our actions in Syria, where we provided some 182,000 people with drinking water and 153,000 pupils with access to formal education last year.
With the international development strategy—so important as a guiding hand—our spending decisions, our partnerships, and our expertise and professionalism will continue to reinforce our position as a development leader.
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