Theresa May weighs in on U.K. foreign aid debate, reaffirms spending commitment

Prime Minister Theresa May signed her letter of notification to the President of the European Council setting out the United Kingdom's intention to withdraw from the European Union. (Credit: Jay Allen/Crown Copyright/flickr)

Supporters of U.K. foreign aid finally got what they wanted. After mounting pressure from both sides of the debate, Prime Minister Theresa May affirmed the country’s 0.7 percent foreign aid spending commitment.

“Let’s be clear, the 0.7 percent commitment remains and will remain,” she said in a speech to factory workers, according to the Telegraph. “What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way.”

May said she was “very proud” of the U.K.’s foreign aid record. Only six countries meet the U.N.-backed goal of spending 0.7 percent of national income on foreign aid each year.

After May called for a snap election last week, a rumor circulated that the spending commitment was going to be dropped from the election manifesto for the Conservative Party. The government’s refusal to comment on the rumor fueled speculation that change was afoot.

In response to that speculation, World Bank President Jim Kim and Bill Gates made public statements urging the government to preserve the foreign aid budget.

At a press conference last week during World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., a reporter from the Daily Mail, a British tabloid that has campaigned for years against foreign aid spending, asked Kim directly what difference it would make if the U.K. cut its spending.

“I would just … say to the people of the U.K. that 0.7 that has been committed to is critically, critically important, not just for developing countries but for the future of the world,” Kim said. “People have to think about aid as far more than just sort of giveaways.”

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Kim went on to praise the “incredibly thoughtful and innovative” work done by the U.K. Department for International Development.

The Daily Mail increased its pressure against foreign aid after the Brexit vote and the departure of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who successfully enshrined the 0.7 percent spending commitment.

A joint statement by leading U.K. advocacy and aid groups, including Oxfam, Comic Relief, Plan and World Vision, urged the government to maintain its promises. It joined Kim in praising the achievements of U.K. aid and argued that it embodies the spirit of British citizens.

“The British public are also proud that our great nation hasn’t turned its back on the world’s poorest people, so at a time when the world most needs our leadership and strength, we call on the leaders of all parties to hold firm on the promise we have made, and stand up for their belief in a bigger Britain,” they said.

Bill Gates told BBC’s Newsnight program that it “takes moral courage” to make and maintain the spending commitment. And he repeated his support for foreign aid, a message that he took to the White House last month in opposition to cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

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The collective pressure appears to have worked. During a campaign visit to her constituency, May reaffirmed the commitment, putting to rest concerns from aid advocates.

Opponents, however, were not happy.

“The 0.7 percent foreign aid target is totally arbitrary and meaningless and it is disappointing that the Prime Minister has refused to see sense and scrap the ring-fencing of the budget,” John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said in a statement. “The worst possible way to deliver value when spending taxpayers’ cash is to define the success of a policy by how much you spend rather than what the money actually achieves. What’s more, not only does the bloated foreign aid budget have a poor record at promoting freedom in developing countries, even the Government’s calculations fail to take into account the considerable amount that the British public give privately to help the most vulnerable people around the world.”

May’s comments indicated that the government could find new ways to spend the budget. New rules advocated by the U.K. for what could be considered foreign aid spending opened up opportunities to include money spent on defense and counterterrorism. Priti Patel, the head of international aid and development, is eyeing ways to increase support from trade programs through the budget.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.