The UK’s Cuts to Foreign Aid: Humanitarianism, National Branding, and Defence

Early this month, the British government revealed plans to slash its foreign aid to the war-torn nation of Yemen. Given the crisis facing civilians in the past year particularly in the Marib province, the cuts come at an unfortunate time for the poverty-stricken country. The £164 million aid given last year to this nation has been more or less halved to £87 million. The Prime Minister has said little on the matter itself, dismissing a vote in the Commons and merely suggesting the cuts were justified in light of “current straitened circumstances”. Some have bought into Boris Johnson’s justification, given the implications of the coronavirus on Britain’s economy. However, there are deeper motives behind the cuts. The cuts are linked to domestic and international priorities. Significantly, Britain is undermining and downplaying the importance of humanitarian efforts in favour of branding their post-Brexit Britain.

The cuts have been seen to emphasise that domestic concerns are much more important than helping foreign nations. The foreign aid cuts are tied to greater domestic spending and branding. For instance, at the same time as the cuts were leaked, the Government pledged to spend £9.3 million on a situation room in Whitehall. This is an expensive demand. Further infrastructure investments include Johnson’s £2.6 million renovations to 9 Downing Street so it can hold more televised Q&A sessions to suit the coronavirus age. Why is expanding infrastructure at home so much more urgent than helping impoverished people who are suffering crises? The United Nations (UN) has reminded the world that Yemen probably needs help more than ever with the virus. For Britain, however, the humanitarian effort has been downplayed. Instead, the cuts are an opportunity for Britain to invest in their own state machinery and branding. 

The reductions in Yemeni aid also precede the Government’s foreign and defence policy review of 15 March, which is due to outline a fuller picture of Britain’s international presence. This review is expected to reset and reassert British relations with South and East Asia. To this end, the UK is deploying greater armed services overseas especially in response to global threats. The cost of such defence is due to come at an expense, which the cuts to foreign humanitarian aid will no doubt contribute to.

This defensive position could not be clearer in the context of Yemen. Meanwhile, Britain seems to have abandoned its humanitarian and cosmopolitan outlook. Only last year, Dominic Raab and the Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss approved and have allowed export of air-to-air refuelling equipment that could aid the Saudi forces in their airstrikes in Yemen. Just a month ago, Britain approved £1.4 billion on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In both increasing defence and reducing foreign aid, the humanitarian crisis is precipitated. Simultaneously, Britain is choosing to distance itself and downplay the severity of loss of lives.

 It is easy to see why Boris Johnson has glossed over the foreign aid cuts and blamed the pandemic for it. It is harder to justify the loss of lives and the lack of humanitarianism than it is domestic branding and foreign defence. However, this does not excuse the fact that the foreign aid cuts are indeed harmful. The Yemeni people face a dire situation and the UN has highlighted this. Britain’s diversion of funds from foreign aid to national branding can actually diminish their global reputation and security in comparison with other nations.