Boris Johnson urged to commit to aid budget after defence boost | Global development

Nearly 200 charities and aid organisations have called on Boris Johnson to reconsider plans to cut billions from the international development budget by reducing it to 0.5% of GDP.

Save the Children, Greenpeace UK, Christian Aid, VSO International and others urged the prime minister not to cut Britain’s aid spending while the world was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A time when 115 million people look set to be pushed back into extreme poverty, now is the time for an international, collaborative response to Covid-19,” an open letter signed by chief executives and other leaders of the 187 charities said.

The UK is due to host a G7 summit and the COP26 climate change summit in 2021, the signatories noted. “It is a time that requires increased, not decreased, engagement from the British government in its efforts to make the world healthier, safer and more prosperous.”

Their intervention came after Johnson repeatedly refused to commit to maintaining the UK’s overseas aid spending at 0.7% of GDP during a Commons debate in which he unveiled a four-year £16.5bn boost to the defence budget.

He was challenged by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, to explain how the defence announcement would be paid for and to honour “a very clear Conservative party manifesto commitment” to maintain the aid budget at 0.7%.

Johnson said the additional defence spending represented “the biggest package of our support for our services since the cold war” and added: “There is absolutely no relation to discussions about overseas aid.”

It emerged this week that the Treasury wanted to reduce the overseas aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%, cutting billions more from aid spending after a £2.9bn reduction as a result of economic shrinkage during the pandemic.

Andrew Mitchell, a former development secretary, asked Johnson whether he would commit to the 0.7% target, arguing that it would stand him “in very good stead as he assumes the chairmanship of the G7”.

Johnson again declined to recommit to the figure, but said the UK could be “very proud of our record in overseas aid”.

Several speakers also criticised the government for delaying the integrated review of defence and foreign policy until late January or early February while making the generous funding announcement now.

“This is, however, a spending announcement without a strategy. The government have yet again pushed back vital parts of the integrated review, but there is no clarity over their strategic priorities,” Starmer said.

The spending boost will lift the £41.5bn annual defence budget by roughly £5bn a year, because the extra £16.5bn will come on top of a previous commitment to lift the budget by just above inflation.

The total uplift is £21.5bn, the biggest defence increase since the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and ends a decade of real-term budget declines that date back to when the Conservatives took power in 2010.

Johnson told MPs the budget increase would allow the British military to invest in new technology. He said it would help soldiers in hostile territory to “be alerted to a distinct ambush by sensors or satellites or drones instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal responses”.

He said the armed forces would be able to order “a swarm attack by drones paralysing the enemy with the weapons”, and that British warships and combat vehicles “will carry directed energy weapons” – a reference to emerging laser and radio frequency weapons being trialled by the military. It is unclear how effective they are.


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