UK fails to contribute as donors unite to bridge US 'global-gag' funding shortfall

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Dutch development minister Lilianne Ploumen, right, stands alongside Danish counterpart Ulla Tornaes at the She Decides conference in Brussels. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

The British government failed to join other donors in pledging millions of dollars to an international fund aimed at filling the gap left by Donald Trump’s reimposition of the “global gag rule”.

At a conference in Brussels on Thursday attended by delegates from 50 countries, pledges were made totalling €181m (£155m) to fund family planning and reproductive health services in low-income countries. Organisers hope to counter Trump’s ban on US aid to overseas groups that provide abortion or abortion advocacy, one of the US president’s first acts in the White House.

Countries including Canada, Sweden and Finland lined up to announce pledges, while Britain’s minister at the talks presented existing spending commitments.

As the contributions poured in, Rory Stewart, minister for international development, restated the UK’s existing spending on family planning in developing countries. “Having historically put £90m in 2010 into this issue I can confirm that the UK government now has a budget of £200m for family planning,” he told delegates.

“For the UK this is an absolutely crucial issue,” said Stewart, adding that the UK was the second-largest donor in the world and had increased funding in recent years.

Belgium’s deputy prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said he expected other countries to make pledges in the coming months. “Not all countries are able to free up these amounts in three weeks’ time,” he told reporters, referring to the rapid organisation of the conference, as countries scrambled to close the gap following the Trump decision in late January.

“Some countries were not here or could not make any commitment, but we should not take that as a no,” De Croo said. He added that the issue would be on the agenda of a UK government conference on family planning in July.

Linda McAvan, the Labour MEP, who chairs the European parliament’s development committee, told the Guardian the UK should join the coalition of countries pledging support to bridge any funding gap caused by Trump’s policy.

“What became clear at today’s conference is that it’s the world’s poorest women and girls who will bear the brunt of any funding cuts,” she said. “The government says Britain will remain an outward looking country after Brexit. Pledging support for She Decides would be a good start.”

Stella Creasy, one of five Labour MPs who wrote to Britain’s international development secretary Priti Patel to ask her department to support the initiative, said: “It is not just the money, it’s the message it sends about what the right thing to do is. They do not want to do anything to upset Donald Trump and as a consequence that makes it harder to plug the gap.

“By not being part of this project we are making it harder for it to be a success and the government needs to ask themselves what matters more, appeasing Donald Trump or saving lives.”

Labour MP Gareth Thomas, who was international development minister when the Labour government pledged £3m to fund abortion services when the gag rule was reintroduced under George W Bush, added: “There is a way, surely, of saying to your allies, we don’t agree with the position you have taken and we are going to step in, but still co-operate in other areas.

“That’s essentially what we did and managed to maintain more than effective diplomatic relationships. Priti Patel should show a bit more courage.”

Organisers of the conference welcomed the pledges, but stressed more were needed if countries were to cover the nearly $600m (£489m) annual loss to family planning and reproductive health programmes left by the Trump administration. “$600m is a lot of money and I do hope that we will get there, but of course lots needs to be done,” said Lilianne Ploumen, minister of development for the Netherlands and lead organiser.

Sweden, Finland and Canada each made pledges of $20-$22m on Thursday, adding to the $10m apiece already promised by Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway.

One anonymous US donor committed $50m, according to De Croo. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promised $20m, after recently warning that the Trump policy endangered the lives of women and their babies. Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Chris Hohn promised $10m, announced the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the charity he co-founded with Jamie Cooper to help children in poor and developing countries. Organisers hope other wealthy donors and foundations will come forward with contributions.

Delegates heard testimony from health experts in low-income countries on the importance of family planning for women’s health, equality and to end poverty.

Experts warned that the implications for global health could be far greater than previous versions of the global gag rule – also known as the Mexico City policy – enacted by George W Bush and Ronald Reagan. The Trump version has been expanded to “all global health assistance”, which could slash funding for groups working to counter Aids and the Zika virus.

Ann Starrs, president of the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organisation, told the conference that health funding worth $9.5bn was at risk.

Delegates heard from Tasneem Fatima, of Marie Stopes International in Pakistan, who said that only one-third of the 31 million women of reproductive age were using contraception. Lack of access to contraception was a huge problem for Pakistan, the world’s sixth most populous country, she said.

Canada’s minister for international development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, said it was too early to judge the impact of the loss of US funds. Shortly after announcing the $20m pledge from Canada, she said she was looking for a constructive dialogue with the new US administration. “Canada will make no compromise on gender equality,” she said. “Being here today was obvious.”

Organisers said they had not had any contact with the Trump administration about the conference, but stressed that was not the point. “We are not looking for big controversy with the United States,” Ploumen said.

Absent was any pledge from the EU, the world’s largest humanitarian aid donor. The European commission, which manages the EU’s €1bn annual aid budget on behalf of 28 member states, said it was “carefully analysing actual needs on the ground and the dimension of funding gaps”.

The EU pledged €32m to family-planning services in 2004, when Bush reinstated the global-gag rule. But Brussels faces political sensitivities if it wants to join this latest initiative, following the arrival in the bloc of Catholic countries, such as Poland.

A commission spokesman said the EU did not promote abortion as a method of family planning, but aimed to reduce it though expanded and improved family planning services. Neven Mimica, the EU commissioner for international development, said he was “strongly committed to do everything in my power to make sure that these needs [created by the Trump policy] will be met”.

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