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Covid-19: Overseas Development Assistance

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of COVID-19 on their Overseas Development Assistance spending priorities in 2020–21 and beyond.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest threat that this country and the world have faced in our lifetimes, and here in the UK and across the globe we are seeing the devastating impact of this virus. The UK is at the forefront of the international response, having so far pledged £744 million in UK aid. This requires a prioritisation of planned spend for this financial year and beyond, both for our immediate response and to support longer-term recovery.

My Lords, since 1970, 22 April has been celebrated as Earth Day, when we celebrate and recognise participation and advocacy around the world. It therefore seems appropriate that today we look at the international consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, particularly in the developing world. The sustainable development goals were designed to create more resilient and sustainable economies and societies around the world. Will the Government this year ensure that their commitment to the sustainable development goals, nationally and globally, is strengthened rather than weakened to ensure that we are better able in the future to respond to and cope with shocks of an economic and health nature, as we are currently experiencing both in the developed and developing worlds?

My Lords, the UK played an instrumental role in establishing the SDGs, and even before Covid-19, we knew that global progress was off track. I am particularly concerned with goal 4, on quality education, and goal 5, on gender equality. The SDGs have a key role in framing and shaping recovery, and the decade of action will be more crucial than ever. We will use the international opportunities we have to build our continued SDG leadership, and we will include in that the SDG summit at UNGA this September and our G7 presidency next year.

My Lords, women and girls are being disproportionately affected by the impact of Covid-19. Can the Minister please assure me that DfID will address the specific vulnerabilities that women and girls face in the light of the pandemic, and, looking ahead, that women and girls will remain a key focus for DfID?

I thank my noble friend for that question. She is of course right that during times of crisis, the rights of women and girls are often overlooked. In this time of crisis, when people are at their most vulnerable, women and girls need our support more than ever. We must learn the lessons of past epidemics and explicitly include the needs of women and girls as part of our humanitarian response, and in order to stop more lives being needlessly lost. We are therefore working with our international partners to act now, putting gender at the heart of our response. The impacts of coronavirus are not gender-blind, so nor should our response be.

A key element of nutrition-sensitive spending is universal health coverage, which is vital to building resilience to such pandemics. It is likely that the Nutrition for Growth summit will be delayed. Can the Minister assure the House that, if this year’s summit is delayed, she will ensure either that the Government pledge early, or will ensure a continuation of nutrition finance at current levels for another year to avoid a cliff edge in such financing at the start of 2022?

The noble Lord is right to highlight that global commitments on nutrition financing are indeed ending this year, and I agree with him that this continued investment is needed to prevent and treat malnutrition, particularly as countries face worsening levels of malnutrition in the face of Covid-19. We are looking carefully at the options for the UK commitment now that both the Olympic pledging event and the main Nutrition for Growth summit have been postponed, and we will provide an update on our plans when we are able to. Yesterday, the World Food Programme reported that Covid-19 could push 265 million people into acute hunger by the end of this year, so maintaining our commitment to nutrition is more important than ever.

My Lords, I have two questions for the Minister. First, borders are an ineffectual barrier against Covid-19, so does the Minister agree that only a victory that fully includes Africa and the rest of the developing world can end this pandemic? Secondly, notwithstanding President Trump’s intervention, do our Government acknowledge that we need a World Health Organization fully equipped to co-ordinate an international pooling mechanism for Covid-19 research into diagnostics, treatments and vaccines that will be affordable for all?

My Lords, Covid-19 is a global challenge and it is essential that countries come together to tackle the shared threat. We will continue to fund the World Health Organization. We are a key donor to the WHO and have already contributed £75 million to help the organisation lead international efforts to stop the spread of the virus, find a vaccine and end this pandemic.

My Lords, considering the consequential hunger problems that have been identified, can the Minister guarantee that the UK’s support, including budgetary support, for the work of the UNFPA will be guaranteed throughout the next 12 months?

My Lords, we are a key donor to the UNFPA. We recently announced a £200 million humanitarian package that included an additional £10 million support to the UNFPA, and we will continue to support it in the vital work it does.

My Lords, we all appreciate that Covid-19 is a hidden enemy that attacks anyone, anywhere in the world. Some countries overseas are in dire straits. It is important that we continue to provide help to foreign countries. Is it possible in the present climate to maintain the spend of 0.7% of our gross national income on foreign aid?

I can absolutely confirm our commitment to 0.7%. we need to respond both multi-laterally, though the global system, and bilaterally, in country. We are working quickly to pivot our programming to support the Covid response, reinforcing health, humanitarian and social protections or economic support programmes in country.

My Lords, I very much welcome the investment the Government are making in vaccines against Covid-19. Will the Government impose public interest conditions on UK-funded vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, so that they can be affordable and accessible not only in the UK but to low and middle-income countries? Will the Government also encourage and persuade other Governments to do the same?

My Lords, we absolutely need an effective Covid-19 vaccine to be developed, trialled and approved for use as quickly as possible. We are doing that in three ways. First, we are the largest funder of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Secondly, we have launched a vaccine task force to expedite and co-ordinate efforts to research and produce a coronavirus vaccine. Finally, in June we are hosting a replenishment for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. That will be really key to the operational delivery of a vaccine at an affordable price to those who need it across the world.

DfID has given priority to strengthening health systems across Africa. Can we be assured that this will be maintained, if not increased, especially in the light of falling GDP at home? What does the Minister think about the WHO’s advice that there should be no restrictions on travel to Africa, given that the disease is escalating there and that this has proved to be a factor in spreading it worldwide?

My Lords, I agree that we need to strengthen the fragile health systems in the world’s poorest countries, where the chance of disease spreading rapidly is the highest. That will of course reduce the risk of having future waves of infection globally. I am not going to comment on the WHO’s advice on travel to Africa. I would say, though, that it is important that we maintain connectivity so that we can support our delivery of aid in the countries which are sometimes hardest to reach.

Baroness Massey of Darwen. No? There are no more supplementaries, my Lords. The time has also elapsed for this Question. We now come to the second Oral Question.