News that Conservative MPs have succeeded in securing a Commons vote on Monday on the future of the UK aid budget could not come at a more important time. It is no exaggeration to say that lives depend on them winning a reversal in the government’s devastating cuts to global programmes.
The UK is also set to host the G7 Summit, which presents a critical opportunity to harness global leadership and galvanise world leaders’ commitments to an inclusive recovery from the pandemic. However, millions affected by crisis and conflict are at risk of being forgotten at a time when we are witnessing a spike in emergency levels of hunger and the looming threat of famine.
Hunger kills. Until last year I worked in northeast Nigeria, providing life-saving services to people hit by the ongoing conflict there. This included the provision of specialist medical treatment for acutely malnourished children. Aid from countries like the UK was essential to this.
The number of people experiencing acute hunger rose from 135 million to 155 million across 55 countries in 2020; it is estimated that 270 million people are at risk in 2021. That’s more than four times the population of the UK. The economic shock caused by Covid-19 has been a significant driver of hunger; new International Rescue Committee analysis shows that economic turbulence will conspire with conflict and climate shocks to drive up food insecurity, setting back progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by at least five years.
Women and girls are particularly impacted; all too often they are the first to go without during food shortages and to suffer the most from nutrient deficiencies. We have already witnessed a major step back in progress towards gender equality, as women and girls have been disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, conflict, climate change and Covid-19. Pervasive inequalities and the rise in gender-based violence during the pandemic have put women and girls at a serious disadvantage in crisis situations, placing them even more at risk of hunger and food insecurity.
Yet, with the crisis advancing and numbers in humanitarian need multiplying, the UK government has been in retreat.
No 10’s leadership of the newly established G7 famine prevention and humanitarian crises panel is welcome. However, this leadership must be matched with UK funding to achieve meaningful change. Instead, the UK will spend 40 per cent less on humanitarian aid than before the pandemic – at a time when humanitarian need has grown by 40 per cent in the last year alone. In this context, talk of “Global Britain” rings hollow.
The G7 summit represents a chance for the UK to use its G7 presidency to mobilise leaders of the world’s largest economies to prevent catastrophic levels of food insecurity.
Firstly, it can demonstrate commitment by endorsing the G7 famine prevention and humanitarian crises compact – and defining specific and fully resourced actions for its implementation. Secondly, it can prioritise tried and tested ways of preventing acute hunger. The economic shock caused by Covid-19 is a significant driver of hunger.
Humanitarian cash transfers delivered directly to people in the greatest need can help them buy food for themselves and their families while also supporting economic recovery. The International Rescue Committee’s latest report estimates that distributing $2.3bn (£1.6bn) in humanitarian cash transfers could prevent the economic downturn from driving up rates of hunger in 2021. This will not only stave off the worst of the immediate suffering but give people the chance to get back on their feet.
Proven acute malnutrition prevention and response services are also vital when we are seeing a 55 per cent increase in demand for these services. Safe humanitarian access is critical to reach those most in need of these services and, in the long term, investments are needed in climate-resilient agriculture and programmes supporting women and girls hardest hit by the impact of the pandemic and rising food insecurity.
Finally, Boris Johnson and his government should immediately reverse cuts to UK aid. In the context of rising hunger, slashing aid – in defiance of the UK’s own law – undermines the country’s legacy as a development superpower. Doing so in a year supposed to be about international leadership, as the UK hosts the G7 and Cop26, makes little sense. Doing so in a pandemic, with rising humanitarian need is simply irresponsible.
As famine looms, it is time for the UK government to step up and show that we can do so much better than this. We desperately hope that Monday’s vote will reinstate humanitarian aid, as it is needed now more than ever.
Melanie Ward is the executive director at the International Rescue Committee UK