Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of failing to properly address the devastating impacts of poverty, climate change and gender equality on some of the world’s poorest countries.
Critics have said the government's Integrated Review of defence, security and foreign policy, which was released last month and spells out how the UK sees its role on the international stage over the next decade, disregards key issues.
They say it isn’t compatible with the UK’s presentation of a ‘global’ Britain and instead harks back to a more "imperial" attitude.
During a select committee hearing with MPs on Tuesday, Laurie Lee, CEO of CARE International UK, condemned what he says is a missed opportunity, highlighting that gender equality is “mentioned literally only once in the entire review”.
He added: “The review does talk about girls’ education, which is good, it talks a little bit about gender-based violence in connection with conflict, but the other pillars of that strategic vision around gender equality of women's economic empowerment, women's political empowerment and access to sexual and reproductive health is broadly missing”.
Lee said the law on aid should be used to contribute to “reducing poverty in a way which reduces inequalities between persons of a different gender”.
His comments follow criticism of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s November announcement that UK foreign aid would be cut from 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5%, with no mention in the review of a previous commitment to give 50% of official development assistance to fragile and war-torn countries.
One expert at the select committee also questioned how truly global the image of ‘global Britain’ presented in the review was. Professor Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, said the phrase was being “widely overused and often used with a certain degree of hypocrisy”.
She added: “On the one hand talking about global Britain, but yet actually pulling back from many of the aspects of global relationships that have been appreciated by people around the world, and indeed people in this country.”
She said that there are positive aspects of the report, namely the general commitments to biodiversity and human rights as mentioned in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with the UK’s aim to reach them by 2030.
However, she added that “development occupies a vanishingly small number of pages in a very long report which majors fully on defence”.
“The disregard for development in this review is a huge loss for this country’s long-standing role as what many have called a development superpower and the soft power and global influence it creates, and combined with the government’s decision to reduce UK ODA (official development assistance), it demonstrates a really disappointing lack of ambition for the UK’s role in international development.”
The professor mentioned that UK surveys on aid reveal “a higher degree of support for aid directed to tackling extreme poverty than is often argued frankly in government rhetoric”, and said the image of ‘global Britain’ painted by the review was “harking back perhaps to a more imperial moment.”
“Listening to local voices, working with people genuinely in need underlies a great deal what ‘global Britain’ has been about and could be about into the future”, she noted.
In June last year, Boris Johnson outlined his ambitions for what he called a "Global Britain" in the wake of the pandemic, saying the crisis offered proof of the "seminal importance of international engagement and exactly why our country must perform its global role".
He claimed the integrated review would maximise the UK's "influence and integrate all the strands of our international effort".
International Development Committee Chair, Sarah Champion MP, said previously that the review was “laden with contradictions. The Government explains that Africa will increasingly be left behind, that with a growing population Africa will be hit hardest with the impacts of climate change, poverty and conflict. Yet the UK’s international priorities are gearing towards the Indo-Pacific with presumably less development spend going to Africa. Setting a commitment to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is admirable, but excluding extreme poverty as a strategic objective for aid is bizarre.”
Champion added the review was due around this time last year, and that the development strategy, expected to explain details of the merger between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, along with cuts announced in July and November, will not be coming until 2022.
It was expected to come out this year.
Lee described this delay as “alarming” and added: “Hopefully we will have restored it [foreign aid budgets] to 0.7% by then”.
Lee added that the review highlighted the importance of economic development, but said: “It says next to nothing about the distribution of wealth, making sure that economic growth is inclusive in the way that we have got very used to DFID in the past talking about leaving no-one behind.
“It leaves you wondering, well where is it in the list of priorities of this single department now that it was so missed out of what was supposed to be the integrated view?”
Professor Leach said: “Development does need to be transformational. It’s not just about building back better, it’s about building forward differently in a way that really takes these global challenges which the SDGs actually articulated very well, really seriously.”
This was slashed after chancellor Rishi Sunak cut it down to 0.5% in November last year.
Foreign Office minister Baroness Sugg resigned promptly thereafter, saying it was “fundamentally wrong to abandon” the commitment to 0.7%.
In her resignation letter to Boris Johnson, she added: “Cutting UK aid risks undermining your effort to promote a Global Britain.”
Lee said: “Making the cuts without a parliamentary vote to change the law is questionable. The foreign secretary himself told Parliament on 26 November that the law was really clear they would need to change the legislation and they would be legally challenged if they did not do so.
“Nothing has changed other than the calculation that that vote would be lost. It is not right that the government’s legal advice has changed for that political reason.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described the cuts as a “death sentence” to Yemen, and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock described it as “alarming.”