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Government Support for NGOs and Churches in Developing Nations: Covid-19

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021

[Clive Efford in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for non-governmental organisations and churches in developing nations during the covid-19 pandemic.

I sincerely thank you, Mr Efford, and the Chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me the opportunity to raise this vital issue today. I have been asking for this debate for some time. It is one of the ones that I was very keen to bring through. Covid-19, of course, has exacerbated the issues for non-governmental organisations in particular. I will be giving a number of examples, and I know that others will too.

I have long been a supporter of the 0.7% of GDP international aid commitment, as I have witnessed the need in developing countries. Although I understand that our first priority is always the needs of our own communities—that is correct—I believe that we have a moral obligation that can be carried out in tandem. It should not be impossible to do both. The motivation for this debate is that I have been made aware of the dire circumstances that individuals find themselves in. Although we have been able to provide furlough for our workers at home, those in developing nations have no such help and lockdown has meant devastation. The figures that I will mention later show that up to 50% of those employed by NGOs, who are doing marvellous work, have either lost their jobs or may lose them.

Every church in my constituency of Strangford has been involved in missionary and charity work in countries across the world, whether it be through WaterAid or education or health projects—all paid for voluntarily. All Churches—Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Reformed Presbyterian, Congregational, small assemblies and my own Baptist Church—are involved in aid projects and missions across the world in many continents.

In particular, I remember one gentleman from my church, John Robinson, who is no longer in this world—he died a few years ago—who was actively engaged in some of those projects. He was not a builder—indeed, he was a salesman and did other things—but he went out to those projects in central Africa, along with others who were perhaps not experts, as they had not done their apprenticeships and so on, but were able to help manually. Those who were experts—builders, carpenters, plasterers, electricians and plumbers—were able to do the work when it came to building schools and hospitals, and project work. That was incredibly important.

To start with, I want to mention two projects in Eswatini and Malawi, which are supported through a local church in Newtownards—the Ards Elim church. It has done some incredible work with education and health, but it is not just about that; it is also about jobs and farming. It is about helping people to be self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves, with food and clothing. There are many things that those church projects are able to do. I have heard from them of entire families going for days at a time without a mouthful of food. Mr Chairman, it would make your heart ache to hear that; my heart aches for them.

In normal circumstances, churches will rally the troops—so to speak—and organise fêtes, cinema nights or meals to raise funds; I have personally attended such events. However, all of that activity is out of the question now due to the covid-19 pandemic.

I will mention one group that does incredible work, which is Samaritan’s Purse UK. I am not sure whether any other Members are aware of it—I hope that they are—but it makes a shoebox appeal every year. It did so before lockdown and it has done so during lockdown. During lockdown in particular, they have been able to provide computers and other IT equipment for vulnerable and poor families both at home and across the world. There are many such groups in my constituency and I know that there are many others in other hon. Members’ constituencies that have also done incredible work. We appreciate that work very much; they are really making things happen and we thank them for it.

As has become abundantly clear in our country during this pandemic, churches are bodies of people, not simply structures of stone, concrete, brick, wood and plaster, and as such, they have continued to persevere in the face of covid-19, continuing to serve the communities in which they are based, not only at home but overseas, through the NGOs and the work that they do.

To give one example among many, Challenge Ministries is responsible for feeding 400 orphans in Swaziland. I mentioned earlier the work that is done in education and health. However, it also feeds 400 orphaned children in Swaziland who nobody else has looked out for. Although its normal fundraising practices have stopped, it still has to provide for those children, who are reliant on Challenge Ministries, which also supports a women’s refuge centre. So Challenge Ministries has organised an online concert tomorrow—Friday 26 March—at 6.30 pm, and the links to it are on my Facebook page. It has had to raise funds in a different way, doing all it can to remind people that there is still great need and that every £5 or £10 will make a difference. It is thinking outside the box, staying within covid rules but using the wonders of technology to bring together local people, who are performing, and the people who we have pledged to support.

When I think of Challenge Ministries, in particular I think of all those orphans. As we know, Swaziland has been ravaged by HIV and AIDS. Many of the young people there, as well as many of the adults there, have AIDS and many people have died; indeed, that is why lots of those 400 children were orphaned. Every year—at least every year pre-covid—Challenge Ministries sent a choir to my constituency to raise funds, and to introduce its mission and the work that it does. I well recall the contributions of those children at different events that I attended; it really did my heart good to hear what Challenge Ministries was doing and what it was committed to. I believe that we must look at the programmes of help for adults and children, including those children who came to Northern Ireland as a children’s choir, so that we can then tell people about what happens to them afterwards.

When I see local people doing what they can to be safe but still helping other people who are dying of starvation, my concern is this: are we in this place—the House of Commons, including the Government and indeed the Minister who is here today—doing the same? I believe that we should all be doing the same. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response to the debate. I look upon him not just as a Minister but as an hon. Friend.

The fact is that NGOs with commitments are struggling and we in this place—especially the Government and the Minister—have the ability to step in and step up. I admire Oxfam, Trócaire, Compassion and so many other organisations for staying the course, but they simply cannot do enough; they cannot fill the gap that has developed with religious resources. That is why the charities and the NGOs are under pressure, and why the Churches back home, which are already giving heavily, find themselves under intense pressure as well.

In developing countries, local churches have provided a lifeline to families in need—both those who were already living in poverty and those newly thrust into poverty by sickness or unemployment, or because of any number of opportunities that have been lost to this pandemic.

To give just one example, I recently met representatives of Compassion, a Christian international development charity that is a wonderful body that does incredible work. Compassion’s operating model is to partner with churches based in poor communities in the global south. In practice, that is 7,912 churches across 25 developing countries. That is almost 8,000 churches with all the congregations and friends. During the pandemic, Compassion has supported churches in delivering 10,614,700 food parcels and 7,128,700 hygiene kits to those most in need. Wow—that is some figure.

That support has been directed and delivered by church staff and volunteers who know their communities because they are an active part of them. They know local people by name, understand local issues and can speak to highly specific needs. The NGOs cover some highly specific and important needs, such as education, health projects and the provision of jobs, food and clothing.

At a time when the world has been ravaged by a pandemic, vulnerable communities have continued to receive support from the storm-proof structure of the local and global Church. We are reminded of the call on Christians to be His body—I say this as a Christian who reads his Bible—to give, to serve, to sacrifice, to show love as Christ, as outlined in Matthew 25:35-40: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me water, naked and you clothed me, in as much as you have done to the least of one of these you have done to me.” It is in times like this that the call has never been so clear, to be His hands and feet. The Church, made up of everyday individuals who are struggling in their own way, in their own lives, in this pandemic, are juggling things around being faithful and giving, and that has to be acknowledged and commended. I thank all the churches everywhere, which give so much of their time and moneys. I know that Christians tithe their money across all the Church structures in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As the Government prepare their proposals for international development policy moving forward, I very much look forward to seeing them. I hope they will give due consideration to supporting NGOs who work with churches. I have asked that on a number of occasions, and I ask again. If we see a group of churches and people and individuals working hard and doing good work, that is motivated by a wish to help others. They do so by partnering with existing church networks that stand alongside communities to deliver aid, empowering local people to determine the shape and direction of that support for themselves. How can the Government best help those churches who are supporting NGOs across many continents?

The UK has been committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance. Due to the economic impact of covid-19 on GNI, the UK’s 0.7% contribution to ODA was already reduced by £2.9 billion. It is now expected to drop to 0.5% of GNI. The double crisis of a drastic drop in income and severe Government cuts means that charities working internationally face significant challenges in funding their programmes and keeping their organisations afloat. It would be a tragedy for these NGOs to not be able to continue the excellent work that they do on a voluntary basis.

There is a real need for this support. Some 39% of those who receive Government grants said that their funding has been seriously or very seriously affected by the 2020 cuts. Similarly, 42% of those who received Government contracts had their funding seriously or very seriously impacted. NGOs are worried that the cuts will impact those most in need. It is clear to me what the impact will be on those groups—those thousands of people. Just as an example, Challenge Ministries in Newtownards in my constituency is involved with 400 orphans. If we do not or cannot help them, or reach out and run a project that will take them on board, we have a real issue.

Despite the cuts in funding for UK NGOs, organisations have seen increased need for their services—their programmes of healthcare, water, sanitation, food and humanitarian relief. A few years ago I obtained a Westminster Hall debate on WaterAid, because I recognised at that time that the Government were doing some fantastic work with it. Some of the churches, such as Challenge Ministries, do incredible work with WaterAid too, in providing water—which is something we take for granted in the Province where I come from, where it is there most days of the week. Many people across the world do not have that. Sixty-three per cent. of organisations expect demand for their services to increase in 2021-22. NGOs must do more with less, while worrying about their own sustainability and the staff they employ, and their ability to support the communities they work in. So NGO money is down, but the demand for their work has increased.

I have four requests, which I believe are well thought out, and I would appreciate the Minister’s response to them. The international charity Bond has made four calls that I fully support. They give us another option for somewhere to focus our attention, or the direction in which the FCDO could go. First, there should be focus on support for vulnerable populations, areas and countries that may have the least capacity to access support. New funds should be allocated on a “no regrets” basis, and the FCDO should ensure that new funding does not divert aid away from other necessary work, such as conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

My second request is to ensure the transparency of covid-19 funding. The UK Government need to be transparent in their covid-19 funding that goes through multilaterals and FCDO country offices, so that civil society organisations working with communities have quick and easy access to sufficient levels of funding.

Thirdly, we should set up an access fund for small NGOs. Smaller ones do incredible work. I believe that there is a possibility to do something in that way, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Small NGOs provide niche development expertise but are struggling to find funding for their much-needed work. Voluntary work, after all, provides incredible opportunities for the future. Will the Minister seriously consider a fund for small NGOs, which do great work, so that they can continue to support their local partners and the communities that they operate in? That small investment can bring great dividends. Fourthly, funding that reaches the most marginalised should be prioritised.

I will offer one more thought about those four requests. I visited Pakistan in September 2018, with Lord Alton, the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), Amro Hussain, Javaid Rehman and Morris Johns. I saw at first hand some of the issues that people must deal with. From the imposition of lockdown on 21 March onwards, many private entities and NGOs started distributing rations and sanitation items among the needy. However, reports of religious discrimination by some organisations emerged on social media.

I have mentioned Bond, the group that put forward the four thoughts I outlined, and the UK charities working on the frontline delivering lifesaving care to people in the UK and the poorest parts of the world—but current programmes are being eroded because of income being reduced. It is worrying for the future, and the most worrying thing is that even worse cuts may happen in 2021 and 2022.

To refer back to Pakistan, a report by a local YouTube news channel in Karachi, JD News, went viral on social media when the representatives of Saylani Welfare, a well-reputed welfare organisation, were reported to be refusing to distribute rations among minorities. So we are very concerned about those things. To back that up, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that this is

“a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”

Covid-19 has aggravated the existing disparities. There is a need for radical reform and response.

Refugees and the disabled are especially affected. One video that I am aware of involved a Hindu who was refused food simply because they were a Hindu. In the second video, three Christian ladies were refused rations and food because they were Christians, but were told that if they converted to Islam they would get the food. How much does that hurt someone? As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken up on many occasions for all ethnic and religious groups across the whole world. To be told that they cannot get food unless they are a certain religion and that they have to convert to Islam is wrong. It is totally outrageous and not acceptable.

Covid-19 has exacerbated this for the lower levels of society. Christians, Hindus and other ethnic groups are already disadvantaged in health and education, but are now disadvantaged because of covid-19. I will use some strong terminology, but there is a religious-blind policy in some of UK Aid. Those are strong words to use, but that is patently obvious on the ground when we see what is happening. I am not aware of any steps that have been taken by UK Aid to safeguard religious minorities and I believe that that must change. I ask the Minister for his direct involvement to prevent the abomination of people not getting food simply because they are Christians or Hindus.

Further examples are street sweepers and those involved in sanitation work, who are usually Christians or Hindus, having to work without personal protective equipment, which is putting real pressure on persecuted Christians, Hindus and other ethnic groups. Again, I believe there must be action to introduce laws against institutional discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and the positive inclusion of religious minorities as beneficiaries and part of the reforming system.

The all-party parliamentary group for Pakistani minorities, of which I am chairman, took notice and wrote to Ministers and to the Charities Trust, as it is based in the UK, to protest. The Charities Trust replied to say that its policies would be reviewed. If the Minister has any knowledge or information about that I would be keen to hear his thoughts. It said it would ensure that it would not happen again, but proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is in the actions. We will see if it happens again. I look to the Minister for his support.

We need to engage to ensure that funding is allocated fairly, reasonably and equally. I ask that consideration is given to the introduction of measures to eliminate the chances of institutional discrimination on the basis of religion or belief within a system. We have to ensure positive inclusion of religious minorities among the beneficiaries, and make inclusion of religious minorities and other marginalised and vulnerable groups a central part of the delivery system. That is why this debate is so vital. Many people across the world are affected. The projects are in Africa, the middle east, Asia, India, Pakistan, and they are in South America—there are projects everywhere.

As I come to the end of my contribution, I want to refer to Iraq, where 1 million Christians have left their homeland since 2003. This is probably the highest proportion of one Christian group having to leave the country that they were born in and brought up in. The Nineveh plain is mentioned in our own Holy Bible and is next to Mosul, which I had the opportunity to visit with Aid to the Church in Need some years ago. That was before Mosul fell to and was then freed of terrorism and Daesh. I saw at first hand the persecution of Christians and the disparities in the way they were treated.

In this area, Christians have been blamed for covid-19. I mention this to bring the issue up to date. It is so untrue and so dishonest that they have been blamed, because they have been affected the very same as other religious groups. Covid-19 does not and did not start with them. We know that, but sometimes others take advantage of the circumstances. Iraq claims to be a pluralistic society, but it has failed miserably to protect and give equal treatment to other minorities already suffering from the Daesh abuses of the past. We also think of the Yazidis in Iraq, who have faced abysmal treatment—violence, murders and abuse. It has been absolutely horrendous.

Access to medical care is already inadequate. Their only source of covid-19 assistance has been through the NGOs and church groups. They have had no Government supplies, showing very obvious, direct discrimination, I wholly believe, against Christians and other ethnic and small minority groups. Many of the qualified medical staff were Christians. Many of them fled to Jordan, Egypt and surrounding countries because of what was happening in Iraq. So there is now a substantial loss and dearth of qualified doctors and nurses in Iraq. Many wish to return but feel that they cannot while danger still exists on the ground.

The role for the Government in Iraq and, I believe, for our Government has to be to work together to deliver security. The needs are great and we cannot meet them alone. But, Minister, look at the tremendous work of the NGOs and the churches and the thousands of their congregations that deliver across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Look at the gifts, the moneys that are set aside and the practical work and developments, be it in education, health, farming, food or clothing. All those things are done by the NGOs and churches, many of them on a voluntary basis. The value per pound is greater for those projects.

I ask the Minister, can we take their lead and do good to all men, to all women, and especially to all children? Can we get aid out now to those who are starving? This is not about education alone or long-term change. It is just about helping people, Minister. It is about making sure that we can reach out and help those who we see are in trouble— those who have problems, families that are under health pressures and even the pressure to put food in their stomachs. I believe that we can play a greater part and that our Government—my Government, my Minister—and the FCDO and, indeed, hon. Members across all political parties in the Chamber have the wish to help those who need help. I believe that society is marked and measured by its help for those who are less well off. Today I am asking for that commitment from the Minister and from my Government for all those people in all those continents—in Asia, in India, in Pakistan, in the middle east, in Africa and in South America. I believe that we have a moral duty to help them as much as we can.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and for securing the debate, and wish him a very happy birthday. We have known for a long time that the interests of minority religious communities and those seeking to shine a light on human rights abuses around the world have no greater champion in the House than him. He proved that again today, and we thank him for it.

As the hon. Member said in his opening remarks, the covid-19 pandemic is a global economic and health crisis. The virus does not respect international borders, and while one country is at risk all countries are at risk. I add my thanks to all the UK charities, NGOs, faith groups and Churches that have been working on the frontline day in and day out, delivering life-saving care to people living in some of the poorest parts of the world.

The people who have been working throughout the pandemic, supplying aid and assistance to developing countries and countries ravaged by war, or in areas devastated by drought or flood, deserve our most sincere and heartfelt thanks. As so often during the pandemic, it is they who have become the trusted voice in those communities, raising awareness of public health preventative measures, tackling vaccine disinformation and encouraging people to take up the vaccine where it has been available.

As well as being able to deliver effective humanitarian aid and meaningful long-term assistance, they are so often the institutions that people turn to for social and spiritual support. For what they are doing in the most trying and difficult circumstances they deserve our deepest gratitude and support. They do not deserve to have the rug pulled from under them when they are trying to deliver that help to people living in crisis. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened.

In the middle of a global pandemic, at a time when many of the poorest people on the planet are more vulnerable to hunger and disease than ever before, the UK Government—the Government of one of the richest countries in the world—have decided arbitrarily to reduce the help that they give to those poor communities. Not only is the decision to cut foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP a betrayal of those people and of our NGOs and the charity sector, it must also be the final abandonment of what little was left of the UK’s reputation for moral leadership in the world.

What makes that betrayal utterly grotesque is the fact that, having announced that they were taking the money away from those poor communities, the same Government announced that they were preparing to spend billions of pounds to increase their stockpile of nuclear weapons. In my opinion, and that of the Scottish National party and, I believe, of most decent people, to do such a thing is utterly abhorrent and deeply immoral.

Earlier this week, the United Nations published figures showing that around 34 million people are struggling with what it calls “emergency levels” of acute hunger. That means they are just one step away from starvation. At the same time, the UK’s NGOs and charities reported that demands for their services have increased, particularly around healthcare, water and sanitation, food supplies and humanitarian relief. Against that backdrop, whereas every other G7 member responded to the covid pandemic by increasing international aid, the UK alone in that group chose to cut its aid budget for this year.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate and to hearing him explain how the UK thought it appropriate, justifiable or morally acceptable to take money away from starving people and starving children, and from preventing the spread of coronavirus, and instead divert funds into the purchase of even more nuclear weapons. Let us be in no doubt that right now the UK charity sector and our NGOs are in severe financial crisis. Many are at risk of closure because public fundraising has been substantially reduced. The NGO and charity sectors are currently being squeezed from all sides. They are bearing the brunt of Government aid cuts and at the same time having their income from their traditional tried and tested sources of fundraising decimated. High street charity shops, town centre collections and fundraising fetes have all but disappeared because of the pandemic, yet, as the hon. Member for Strangford says, rarely have they been in greater demand.

Bond, the UK network for organisations working in development and humanitarian aid, found that nearly three quarters of the organisations they represent are experiencing financial difficulty. Their income stream has been badly hit, with 81% saying that their public fundraising has been seriously or very seriously affected. The double crisis of a drop in income and a severe cut from Government grant means that these charities face significant challenges in funding their programmes and keeping their organisations afloat. Against that background, the Government cut funding, and almost two thirds of NGOs expect the demand on their services to increase in the next 12 months.

As I have said, this is almost a perfect storm of cuts in aid amid a global pandemic. Those working on the ground are having to do much more, but with much less. I pay tribute, as the hon. Member for Strangford did, to the small church groups and charities that work so hard. He gave a couple of wonderful examples of churches in his constituency that work in Malawi and Swaziland to try to alleviate the worst effects.

My own Argyll and Bute constituency is home to the marvellous and wonderful Mary’s Meals, which uses schools to provide hot meals to 1.5 million of the world’s poorest children every day. It has had to find new ways to feed those children as the pandemic has closed schools and the home has now become the primary place of learning. Thankfully, by working with Governments, community leaders and on-the-ground partners, Mary’s Meals has developed new ways of distribution, and will continue to do so until it is safe, but it is more expensive and more time consuming and will require more money, not less.

Of course, Mary’s Meals is not alone. The financial effect of the pandemic can be felt throughout. In January, I was privileged to join the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on a virtual tour to see the great work being done by Compassion UK in Togo. Compassion UK is a Christian charity dedicated to empowering every child that it can who has been left vulnerable through poverty. It works in 24 developing countries and is living proof of what can be done with just a little money to give life-changing support to mothers and babies in countries where infant mortality and death from pregnancy complications are, sadly, very high. The pandemic is having a major effect on its work and a significant impact on its clients, who are frightened to go to hospital, are worried about going to anti-natal clinics, and are not attending vaccination appointments for their babies.

Thankfully, Compassion UK has been able to use the years of trust that it has built up in local communities to find networks of support for these mothers and their babies, and provide vital masks and sanitation equipment so that they can protect themselves and their families. I spoke to Compassion UK this morning, and the charity has asked me to extend an invitation to the Minister to join it on a virtual tour to Togo, to see for himself the remarkable, life-changing work that it can do with the tiny amount of UK aid money allocated to it. I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford will agree that the Minister will be hugely impressed with what he sees, should he choose to accept that invitation.

Mr Efford, those in the sector say that falling income has made it more difficult and more expensive to deliver aid. Yesterday, I spoke to the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which has been delivering humanitarian aid for decades in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the middle east. They have been assisting the Malawian Government in their national response to the covid pandemic, and are supporting 11,000 slum dwellers and migrants in India with food and sanitation kits.

Every charity has a different story to tell, but they are absolutely united in their unequivocal condemnation of this Government’s decision to reduce overseas aid. They are as one in saying that the Government must keep their commitment to the most marginalised communities and revert to the 0.7% target—a commitment that was made in their election manifesto.

Overseas aid has never been more vital, particularly as the impact of covid is in danger of setting back international development for a decade. I would therefore ask the Minister how the UK Government can cut aid to the most vulnerable people in the world at this time, in a year in which they will chair the G7 and take over the presidency of the COP. How can they claim to be a world leader but, at the time of greatest need, deliberately cut off the supply of aid to the poorest and most vulnerable?

I know that the Minister will say that the UK Government are still one of the biggest contributors to humanitarian aid, and he is right, but that is exactly how it should be. As one of the richest countries in the world—and, let us face it, one that became fabulously wealthy at the expense of countries in Africa, Asia and the middle east, who are now in desperate poverty—we have a moral responsibility to look after those people now, in the moment of their greatest need. The reversal of this 0.7% decision must be the first step in doing that.

This pandemic should have been an opportunity for the UK Government to show genuine leadership. Instead, they have used the pandemic to turn their back on the most vulnerable people in the world. In so doing, not only are this Government reneging on a legally binding spending commitment, but they are also breaking one of their manifesto commitments and their promises. Pulling the rug out from under outstanding NGOs, faith groups and Churches, who battle every day against impossible odds to deliver aid to those who need it most, is unforgivable.

I will finish by reminding the Minister of the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that, when it comes to this pandemic, and the world in which we now live,

“none of us is safe until all of us are safe”.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Efford.

I will begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); I wish him a very happy birthday too. He was one of the very first Members to welcome me to this House, and our common Christian faith and commitment to humanitarianism, human rights, and international development mean that we have often found ourselves in the same debates over the years, raising very similar concerns.

He knows that the House has a huge affection for him, and I am always delighted to hear him speak on these crucial issues. Indeed, I endorse many of the points he has made today, not least around the 0.7% commitment and our moral duties as a country. He is absolutely right to have illustrated the crucial role that NGOs, and particularly faith-based NGOs and Churches, play in both international development and humanitarianism, not least in response to this current pandemic.

I thank the SNP spokesperson and commend the critical work of agencies based in the devolved nations as well, such as the Wales for Africa programme, many of the Scottish organisations mentioned today, and those in Northern Ireland to which the hon. Member for Strangford referred. They all play a critical part in this country’s response to the challenges that the world faces and reflect very powerfully on our moral intent as a country —one that is sadly being undermined by the current Government, which I will return to in due course.

Having worked myself for a Christian NGO, World Vision, I have seen first-hand the work that World Vision and other faith-based organisations do in many crises. I often reflect on its work with the HIV/AIDS pandemic that I witnessed in places such as Malawi, which has close links with Scotland and Wales—I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV/AIDS—and on its work responding to disasters and catastrophes, such as the Boxing day tsunami in 2004. I saw how World Vision worked not only with its own partner organisations and its staff around the world but with other faith-based organisations, including those of the Islamic faith in many of the countries affected, to respond to the devastation that left a quarter of a million people dead.

The very morals and values on which basis such generous and selfless acts are done by both these organisations and their donors are inspired by the same beliefs that drive many people in their faith and, indeed, many Christians. As it says in the ancient prophets—the hon. Member for Strangford quoted the Gospels, but I will quote Isaiah 1:17:

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Or we could look at Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

It is no surprise that Church and faith-based organisations have come to play a critical role in empowering the most marginalised and healing the wounds left by war, natural disasters or, indeed, this pandemic.

I think about the work of the Somaliland Muslim community in my own constituency helping to rebuild their country and to encourage its development since the conflicts of the early 1990s; I serve as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland. I also think about the remarkable generosity of our Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities, and of their related organisations. Faith, belief and moral duty are incredible motivators and they enable people to do incredible things in some of the most trying circumstances around the world.

Let us reflect on what challenges we face with the covid crisis. Scotland’s International Development Alliance pointed out:

“It has been said that this disease “does not discriminate”—but that’s not true. If you are already a marginalised or vulnerable group, this pandemic will affect you more.”

That is very true. Beyond the immediate death toll and the devastating impact it has had in this country and in so many others, the pandemic has highlighted how those who are often marginalised, other minorities, front-line workers and those on marginal incomes who are already struggling to make ends meet have been disproportionately affected by covid-19 and its indirect impacts.

The crisis has highlighted the gaps in gender equality and made them worse. It has worsened economic inequalities, affected education, and diverted resources from other healthcare and disease challenges. It has allowed repressive regimes to threaten human rights further. It has created the space for extremism to flourish from Mozambique to the Sahel. It has destabilised fragile states and Governments and in some cases, it has tragically taken the lives of both political and faith leaders as well. The impact on those marginal groups, as I said, has been horrendous.

Let us look at health. Even before covid-19, more than half of the world’s population still did not have access to all essential health services and unfortunately that has gotten worse. I have spoken to many people from Sierra Leone to Malawi and from many other contexts over recent months. Until the pandemic hit in 2019, we had actually witnessed a steady decline in maternal and child death rates around the world, including a huge boost in funding for childhood immunisation, which increased by 41% since 2010 according to the UN.

Those accomplishments now risk being in vain as the World Health Organisation has reported that 70% of surveyed countries have seen a decrease in the number of routine immunisations, and major shortfalls in emergency units and facilities. Again, listening to Scottish organisations the other week about the situation facing some of Malawi’s hospitals was absolutely shocking.

Aaron Oxley, executive director of RESULTS UK, has stated that at least 80 million children under the age of one are at risk of missing out on routine vaccines for diseases like measles, polio and diphtheria. He stated that the impacts of covid-19 on TB might add 1.4 million deaths, and that 50 million children in Pakistan and Afghanistan may now not receive a polio vaccine in an area where polio is a real threat. STOPAIDS, with which I work closely, has stated that 11.5 million people have had inconsistent access to the crucial antiretroviral drugs for HIV over the pandemic period, and 75% of the UN’s “Global Fund” HIV/AIDS programme has reported moderate to high levels of disruption to service delivery.

We have seen huge economic impacts: there has been an impact on global growth, and Oxfam has dubbed it a twin crisis of health and economy. Millions more will be pushed into extreme poverty and will lack access to public services. The UN estimates that in in 2020, 1 billion people in low to middle-income countries spent 10% of their entire household budget on healthcare.

Tragically, we can expect huge increases in unemploy-ment. The World Health Organisation has suggested that nearly 1.65 billion could lose their job or money-making activity, increasing the number of people on the most marginal incomes. The UN estimated that 71 million people would fall back into poverty in 2020. Those are extraordinary figures of which the Government are only too well aware.

Despite all those challenges, however, global foreign aid is set to decline for the first time in many years, and tragically, the UK is one of the countries leading those cuts. It is not morally right, makes little economic sense, and stores up future costs for us through the impact on global growth, tackling poverty and inequality, and of course, future instability. The UN estimated that 132 million more people could fall victim to chronic food insecurity in 2020. I was struck by the answer a Minister gave me the other day, pointing out that people are already in famine in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, and that millions more are at risk. They know that, yet they are cutting aid and support for the programmes at the very time that people are in famine.

Look at the situation in Yemen. The International Rescue Committee has shown that the cost of a food basket has gone up by 35% in the last year in a country that we know has been devastated by war and humanitarian disaster. Human rights have been threatened in so many places around the world. Hunger has forced parents to send children to work or beg. Women and girls have had to resort to selling their bodies for sex simply to eat. World Vision says that 8 million children have been forced into child labour or begging. An estimated 31 million cases of gender-based violence were predicted in 2020 because of covid-19.

Those are shocking statistics for this House to hear as we make crucial decisions about our future aid spending and development policies. Lastly, UNICEF suggests that 9.7 million students could drop out of school because of the effects of covid-19, despite all the fantastic progress—for which there has been cross-party support in this House for many years—made through initiatives such as “Education for All”.

I will return to some of the positive examples of how faith-based organisations and Churches are helping, as exemplified by some of the many examples that the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. There are far too many organisations to list, but I will name a few. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is estimated that 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group, so faith and religious institutions are crucial in shaping people’s behaviour, in identifying at-risk groups, and in supporting people with services in communities. Many communities rely on religious communities to access knowledge and advice—for example, on issues related to health—because they see those institutions as trustworthy. We have seen where that has gone wrong in the past, but we have also seen where those institutions have played an absolutely critical role in the pandemic by providing advice.

The Catholic Church and its charitable organisations, such as CAFOD and SCIAF, have done work on education, sustainability, disaster relief, peacebuilding, good governance building, fighting misinformation, and working with indigenous people, using the trusted voice of the Church, which people see as a source of advice and support in these critical times. They have been working in some of the most volatile and fragile countries, such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. CAFOD has helped to provide food parcels to 30,000 people in rural Guatemala who face food shortages because of the pandemic.

As cases of coronavirus increased in Ethiopia—a country that will later be debated in the main Chamber in the light of the terrible humanitarian situation in Tigray—Catholic hospitals and health centres used their reach to provide hygiene materials and raise awareness among rural populations of how to protect themselves against covid, and have made cash transfers to some of the most at-risk populations in Tigray, who have suffered gravely and now face potential famine. CAFOD Ethiopia was able to raise funds and repurpose existing programmes to reach 1.4 million people through early-stage interventions.

We must not forget that some of these organisations have decades of experience, links and community partnerships, which will be at risk if they are unable to access the funding and support that they need. They will not only cut their programmes in the short term, but we will lose that expertise, those connections and the impact that they can have—often in prevention, in advance of future crises.

The Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate—an organisation linked to the Catholic Church—did work in South Sudan around covid-19, providing advice on the radio and delivering hygiene projects. I mentioned World Vision, which I used to work for. It works in 100 countries and is now the largest Christian non-governmental organisation in the world. It has put huge effort into fighting covid-19, and has pledged $350 million towards emergency response for 72 million people. Seventy countries have benefited from its support and work on food security and livelihoods, or its work with children and on strengthening health systems and preventive measures. In particular, it is renowned for its work with vulnerable children.

Christian Aid has been working in conflict-affected areas in the Sudan with those who face sexually-based gender violence. As I said, many of those challenges have increased during the pandemic, so that is crucial work. Will those projects be under threat because of the cuts that are coming?

The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the fact that 39% of international charities that receive funding from the Government said that cuts have already affected them seriously or very seriously, and 42% have received very serious or serious hits to their funding. It is quite extraordinary, given the growing threats in regions such as the Sahel, that we heard in the media the other week that the Government will reduce overseas development aid in the Sahel region by 90%. That is extraordinary, given that the region has been hit by covid-19, desertification, climate change, potential famine, and the multiple conflicts that affect people in that region. At the same time, we have British troops stationed in the Sahel, working alongside the French and the United Nations, trying to build stability. It is perverse to be cutting support for our development and humanitarian response while we are responding to the consequences of some of that. Our brave troops are putting themselves on the line to protect civilians, and are working alongside the United Nations and others. The Government seem to be doing two completely contradictory things—one with one hand and one with the other.

As I mentioned, the Government are proposing to cut aid to Yemen from £164 million last year to £87 million this year. They are also proposing to cut aid to Syria, Nigeria and other countries facing conflict and instability, which have been worsened by covid, including Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and other places. It is an absolutely absurd decision to be making at this time.

The situation in Ethiopia could not be starker. Millions are facing famine, and huge areas are without humanitarian access. There were significant reports of horrendous sexual violence in the media over the weekend. This is exactly the wrong time for us to be cutting back and retreating from some of these crises, which have been exacerbated by covid.

I want to end with some questions to the Minister. He knows that the covid-19 pandemic has had a staggering impact well beyond health, so why cut at this time? Why are the Government going to do that? We have heard about the potential impact on Voluntary Service Overseas —one of our national treasures, which enjoys cross-party support. It ensures human-to-human contact and does work in communities around the world. It is under threat, like the other organisations that we have heard about.

There are deeply disturbing reports today from William Worley on the Devex website that the FCDO is allegedly gagging NGOs from speaking out, even as their budgets are slashed. There are some quite extraordinary reports. They are anonymous, because many of these organisations are frightened to speak out. One NGO executive said:

“FCDO said we should not engage with the press as it could affect fund allocations!...But obviously the more outrageous and sinister the more senior it was, and the more organised and deliberate.”

Another executive from one of the NGOs said that FCDO officials were not being communicative, and

“we haven’t been able to get much out of people because”

the FCDO

“are closing down all communications with everyone because of the cuts.”

Report after report after report is coming out about the way the Department is handling things. The very least it could do is be transparent and open and engage with some of these organisations, which are on the frontline and are responding to the covid pandemic and these threats with the moral purpose that I think is at the heart of being British, and for which we have had cross-party support for decades, particularly when tragedies such as covid and other diseases have hit.

Will the Minister commit to publishing urgently the scale of cuts to NGOs and, specifically, faith-based organisations? What role does he see for them in responding to the primary and secondary impact of the crisis? How can it be justified to make these cuts when his Department is also admitting that famine is occurring in some of these countries, not just that they are at risk?

The Minister is a good person and I know he will have to toe his FCDO line, but he knows that this measure is not supported on his own side. He knows the cross-party concern that there is. He knows the many members of his own party who have spoken out powerfully in recent weeks. Former Ministers and people from all different political persuasions within his party, some of whom I disagree with on many issues, have spoken passionately and powerfully on this one. It is breaking our promises to do our fair share. It breaches the cross-party consensus in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015.

The Government need to rethink. We are heading into that crucial G7 summit, where health is key on the agenda. We have the COP summit coming up, where climate change and its impact are so crucial. We are handing over the chair of the Commonwealth to a Commonwealth member we enjoy a close partnership with, Rwanda, later this year. This is an extraordinary backdrop to be heading into those crucial international moments, when the threats are so large, when the impact from covid-19 is so great, when other threats to people around the world are so intense and when we would be letting down those very Churches, faith-based organisations and NGOs that have been at the heart of a moral, humanitarian, human rights-based British response over so many decades. I urge the Government to think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship here this afternoon, Mr Efford. The Minister for Civil Society would love to have replied to this debate, but she is travelling on FCDO business, so I am afraid hon. Members will have to put up with me in her place. I will do my best to fill her considerable boots.

I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. It is always a pleasure to listen to him speak and to hear his wisdom on these matters. He speaks with great authority. May I also add my birthday congratulations? It is a real shame that he is not here today, because I brought a card for him. I will pop it in the internal post for my hon. Friend—indeed, my friend.

I commend his ongoing work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion or belief. It continues to raise the profile of this human right to parliamentarians and, importantly, to the public. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the Opposition spokesman, brings with him a depth of knowledge, having worked in the sector. We are incredibly grateful for the commitment to the causes and the ongoing work that he does.

The integrated review, which was published last week, sets out our renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world. It is our goal to defend open societies, democracy and human rights. For open societies to develop and thrive, they need an inclusive civic space and a vibrant civil society, and for that reason, NGOs and faith-based groups are essential partners. These partnerships can open a dialogue with and provide support for the world’s most marginalised people. This is particularly true, as we have heard this afternoon from hon. Members, during the pandemic. As covid-19 continues to affect communities around the world, we continue to take a leading role in this response.

We have committed up to £1.3 billion of ODA to counter the seismic impact of the pandemic. Nearly £70 million is going directly to international and UK-based charities to support vulnerable communities to recover and to rebuild. There is a great deal of work going on, but, as we have heard in the informed speeches this afternoon, the challenges of the pandemic run deep.

As hon. Members have said, we have had to take an incredibly tough but temporary decision to reduce our spending on overseas development. In real terms, as hon. Members will know, we will still be spending more than £10 billion to fight poverty and climate change. That money is to help improve global health and achieve the UN sustainable development goals. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth wants more detail about potential reductions in funding in this regard. At this time, I cannot confirm such details, but hopefully clarity will be given in the coming weeks. So we understand the challenges for the sector and the need for clarity—that is absolutely clear—and although this is a complex process, the Government commit to sharing details, as I have said, as soon as is practically possible.

Together with NGOs, faith-based groups and religious leaders, we are continuing to deliver for those most in need, in order to keep essential services going at this time. Through our partnership with Unilever—the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition—the UK Government are providing up to £50 million to mount a rapid response to covid-19 in 37 low and middle-income countries. Through this programme, charities including World Vision, which the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth once worked for, WaterAid and ActionAid are delivering evidence-based hygiene messages to vulnerable communities. This type of support plays a vital role in stopping the spread of the disease in the developing world and will also potentially limit its further spread in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford asked about the humanitarian response to covid-19. Through our rapid response facility, we have allocated £80 million to support UK and international humanitarian charities, including Christian Aid, to meet the basic needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. That includes those suffering from multiple crises in Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Last summer, the British public generously donated more than £10 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for covid-19, and the UK Government have provided match funding to double that amount. The appeal is funding the work of the British Red Cross and CARE International UK, among others. These charities are tackling the impacts of the pandemic on displaced people, including those in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. They are providing frontline doctors with equipment and supplies to care for the sick, and giving families clean water and soap to stay healthy.

We are committed to delivering our aid according to internationally recognised humanitarian principles. Those principles ensure that aid gets to those who are most vulnerable and most urgently in need of help, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. This issue was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford, and this group includes minority religious communities, who are assessed by our partners when they are determining those most in need of protection and assistance. And as the hon. Member also mentioned in his excellent speech, churches and other faith groups are providing essential services around the world during the pandemic.

We know that faith-based networks can reach the most remote communities and involve the world’s poorest people in their social, economic and political life. They can reach people who are largely untouched by secular institutions, such as persecuted religious minorities, which is vital, because these groups may experience crises such as covid-19 outbreaks differently from others. Such crises may reinforce their marginalisation, multiply their experience of discrimination, violence and stigma, and further limit their access to essential support and services. We are currently funding more than 200 projects that are managed by 126 different faith-based groups, organisations and churches. Our support totals £130 million annually and spans 39 countries.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth rightly mentioned many of the great projects around the globe, many of them in conflict areas. The majority of our partners are small in-country groups deeply rooted in local communities, such as the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Jamaica Baptist Union. In many countries, the indirect health, humanitarian and economic impacts of the pandemic are being felt very keenly, as they exacerbate pre-existing problems. They are reversing years of development gains in areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality, girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health and rights. With our support, faith-based groups are working to counter that trend.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked that funding be prioritised to reach the most marginalised, and he is correct. The UK is committed to delivering aid according to its internationally-recognised humanitarian principles. Those principles ensure that aid gets to those who are the most vulnerable and most urgently in need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. They provide health and education, empower people to hold their Governments to account and strengthen resilience to disaster and conflict. Through our support to Christian Aid, we are enhancing nutrition for women of childbearing age and under-fives in South Sudan, our funding to CAFOD is building community resilience to climate shocks in Eritrea, Zambia and Zimbabwe and we have supported Tearfund to provide secure livelihoods for women in the Central African Republic.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth referred to transparency. We have a world-renowned reputation on transparency. We are committed to aid transparency both legally and publicly, and we are committed to the publication of quality, accessible information on our aid programmes, which is available on the Development Tracker, along with the continued independent scrutiny of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

The pandemic has undoubtedly brought out the best in many communities around the world. Nevertheless, there has also been a concerning increase in hate speech and a rise in conspiracy theories, which the hon. Member for Strangford referred to, such as that certain faiths are to blame. I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s steadfast commitment to championing freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. The UK’s recently appointed special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), will continue to advance that important agenda.

My ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, also regularly meets civil society and faith-based development organisations to hear about the challenges minority faith communities face, particularly during the pandemic. The UK Government are deeply concerned by the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, and we will continue to refute those divisive and harmful claims.

We will also continue to put our money where our mouth is on hate speech. The FCDO is funding an Institute of Development Studies project that works with minority religious groups in Africa and Asia, doing vital work in challenging narratives and countering hate speech relating to minorities and the spread of covid-19. We are also working with the University of Oxford and parliamentarians in nine countries to reduce the use of language during elections that intimidates minority religious groups.

I think I heard the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) extending an invitation to me to visit Togo to see the great work that is being done there. I would love to take that up but, unfortunately, I am the Minister for Asia, not the Minister responsible for this particular brief. I will ensure that my colleague hears about it, and I am sure she will be very keen to see the great work that is going on in that regard.

The effects of the pandemic have been far-reaching and will continue to have an impact on our lives for some time. The UK will remain at the forefront of the international response as we recover and rebuild in the wake of covid-19. We will be a force for good in those places most in need and for the most vulnerable communities. Our effectiveness will rely on the expertise of our partners, the NGOs whose brilliant work has been described so well this afternoon and the faith-based organisations. Only with trusted people embedded in those communities most in need can we provide relief, promote recovery and build back the open societies that shape security and prosperity for us all.

Thank you so much, Mr Efford. I thank all Members for their contributions, particularly the Minister, and for their birthday greetings. As I said beforehand to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and others, I have got to the stage where I do not count birthdays any more, but I appreciate their thoughts.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to hunger, disease, famine, droughts and floods. Pile that upon vulnerable people with covid-19, and we almost have, as he said, a perfect storm. What can we do? He clearly outlined that we need funding for all the NGOs and groups. We have some ideas about that, and I thank him for his contribution.

I thank the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who used the words “What does the Lord require of you?” from Micah. I thought that that was lovely. It is good to remember that. He was also right that, if we do not have the resources for the polio vaccines, unfortunately we probably face the potential for lethal diseases in the future. He referred to HIV/AIDS, and he chairs the APPG so well, and we thank him for it. If people fall back into poverty, they become susceptible to all sorts of diseases. He referred to food being more costly, in some parts by 35%. UNICEF referred to the effect on students. All those things combined lead potentially to the perfect storm that was referred to.

I also thank the Minister for his response. He clearly acknowledged the good work of the NGOs and faith groups, and referred to them as essential partners. That is good to know. All three of us who spoke would probably seek a wee bit more detail on the funding. That will become clear over the next few months, but we need to see where that will be. I am also very interested in the Unilever project. Perhaps he could come back to me in writing, and confirm how some of the NGOs and Church groups can work with Unilever to help some of their projects. I think that something can be done for Church groups, faith groups and the NGOs, so I thank him for that.

The Minister also gave a commitment to continue to champion, which to be fair the Government have, freedom of religious belief for all beliefs and respect for all, while addressing hate crime and hate speech. Those are all good things. We need a wee bit more detail on future funding, but I recognise his comments that NGOs and faith groups can be a force for good in the world. They very clearly can.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I will finish with a biblical quotation: we have been called to be His hands and His feet—to clothe, to feed, to visit and to help. I say to our Government and our Minister that this House will do exactly that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government support for non-governmental organisations and churches in developing nations during the covid-19 pandemic.

Sitting adjourned.