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UK cuts foreign aid spending commitment, causing outcry

by Reuters
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 14:58 GMT

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

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The decision sparked immediate outcry from international development organisations and the spiritual head of the Church of England

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Britain reduced its foreign aid spending commitment on Wednesday to 0.5% of gross domestic product from 0.7%, causing an immediate outcry from international development organisations and the spiritual head of the Church of England.

The move, announced by finance minister Rishi Sunak as part of an annual review of government spending, will be popular among some voters and media who argue that COVID and the resulting economic crisis mean Britain should spend less on aid.

"During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify," Sunak said in a speech to parliament, pointing to record high peacetime borrowing levels.

"At a time of unprecedented crisis, government must make tough choices."

He said aid spending would rise to 0.7% again when fiscal conditions allowed, but did not set a target date.

EXPLAINER - Britain's foreign aid cut: who will feel the impact?

Several senior members of the ruling Conservative Party, including former foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, criticised the decision, hinting at a possible rebellion in parliament.

"To cut our aid budget by a third in a year when millions more will fall into extreme poverty will make not just them poorer, but us poorer in the eyes of the world," Hunt said.

The announcement was also met with a flood of criticism outside the debating chamber, including from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Communion.

"The cut in the aid budget - made worse by no set date for restoration - is shameful and wrong," he said on Twitter, urging lawmakers to vote against the measure.

Sunak said Britain would still be the second-highest aid donor in the Group of 7 developed economies behind Germany.

Development and environment charities said the move was short-sighted.

"Cutting the aid budget during a global pandemic is like closing fire stations during a heatwave," said Patrick Watt, Director of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns at Christian Aid.

Oxfam said the decision would diminish British influence and leadership at a time when both were badly needed.

The 0.7% target, originally introduced by Tony Blair when he was prime minister, was a commitment made by the ruling Conservative Party in the run-up to last year's election and repeated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon, David Milliken and William James; editing by Stephen Addison)