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Poverty: International Development Aid

Volume 835: debated on Monday 15 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to promote the end of absolute poverty through international development aid.

My Lords, the UK has a proud history of tackling poverty with our aid spending. The White Paper on international development re-energises that work, setting out how we will focus aid where it is most needed and most effective. The UK aims to spend at least 50% of our bilateral aid in the least developed countries. But aid alone will not end absolute poverty, and the UK uses a range of levers, including our expertise and policy influence, to support our partners’ development objectives.

My Lords, the Government’s change of focus and the cuts mean that, in spite of the Minister’s reply, the UK has lost its focus on poverty reduction. UK aid to Africa fell by £258 million in 2022, and its share of aid reduced from 52.3% to 44.1%. The situation in Asia was similar, and further cuts are planned. Africa has around 500 million people living below the poverty line. Does the Minister accept that, if the UK is to play a significant role in ending absolute poverty by 2030, the Government must refocus on poverty reduction in Africa? Can he set out, now or in writing, the poverty-focused UK spending in Africa aimed directly at reducing absolute poverty? Can he set out when spending on poverty reduction in Africa and Asia will return to pre-cut levels?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord; we have achieved a great deal on the eradication of poverty. Focused on humanitarian support, we have provided more than £1 billion of life-saving support in humanitarian emergencies. We have committed £90 million to support in education emergencies, and the UK spent almost £1 billion on global health in ODA in 2022. I take the noble Lord’s point on Africa, and he will be pleased to know that, in 2024-25, we will increase our ODA spend there to £1.3 billion.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that we cannot do much about poverty unless we control population? Can he explain why, despite large amounts of money being spent on aid, millions of women still do not have access to family planning?

I agree with the noble Lord. The issue of population and, linked to that, education is key. That is why the Government have repeatedly committed themselves to the importance of quality education for girls and the empowerment of women. As we move towards 2030 through the White Paper, we will focus much of our spending—up to about 80%—on ensuring that we focus on the drivers. That includes focusing spending specifically on education and empowerment, including women’s and girls’ personal health—that is a key focus. So I agree with the noble Lord, and our spending and programmes will be focused in that way.

My Lords, the Minister said that ODA is not the only lever we have. The average low-income country now spends 2.3 times more on servicing debt payments than on social assistance. In introducing the White Paper, Andrew Mitchell said that we need to “do far more” on debt relief. Does the Minister agree with the UN Development Programme that

“advancing the Sustainable Development Goals hinges on reshaping the global financial system”?

Can he tell us what progress the department has made, as Andrew Mitchell also referred to, in talks with the G20 on a common framework on increasing access for low-income countries?

The noble Lord raises important points. First, on the issue of less developed countries, I alluded to the focus on girls and women. About 80% of our spend by 2030 will be on that, tackling the structural issues that the noble Lord highlighted. It is important that we look not just at providing development support but at issues of debt, trade, tax and corruption—and at delivering the challenges across health and climate change. The White Paper acts as a framework to our conversations, not just with our G7 and G20 partners but beyond. We are very much focused on empowerment through aid, and we will work with private sector partners in an increased fashion to ensure that, for every pound of support spent on development aid, we fully leverage private finance in this area as well.

My Lords, as has already been said, the impact on women and girls is disproportionate. Liz Truss agreed with us in November 2021, when she gave a crystal clear promise. She said that she had

“decided to restore the women and girls development budget to what it was before the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) cut”.

Everything that the Government have subsequently announced in the White Paper will mean that we are not at pre-cuts levels for women and girls. Why on earth was this promise shamefully reneged on?

First, I understand that it is the noble Lord’s birthday, so I extend my best wishes and those of your Lordships’ House—he is 21 once again.

Well, apart from my dulcet tones, my present is to reassure the noble Lord of the Government’s commitment to girls’ education, with the spending on women. I accept that the former Prime Minister detailed that, and I agreed with the Prime Minister at that time about the focus on girls and women when it comes to our development spending. That will be a focus. The noble Lord will have seen our women and girls strategy, which runs to 2030 and has a specific focus on ensuring that we reach those objectives. I agree with the noble Lord who spoke previously that we absolutely must spend more on girls’ education, but there is a second element to that, which is the empowerment of women. That will help us in supporting other countries as well as helping those countries to get themselves out of poverty and become increasingly self-sufficient.

My Lords, very helpfully, in the White Paper there was an emphasis on the importance of locally designed and led development for tackling absolute poverty, and there was a promise of a strategy for reaching that. What stage is it at, and when will that strategy be seen?

The right reverend Prelate is right to raise that question. I will take back the specific issue of an update on the strategy and write to him, but we believe very much in localised solutions. That is why, when we consulted on the White Paper, there were more than 70 countries that we consulted with, and we received about 426 replies from about 46 countries. That ensured that our White Paper demonstrably showed what local needs stood for. On the development of the paper, I will write to the right reverend Prelate.

My noble friend has mentioned many factors: aid, education, tax. The one word he has not mentioned is trade. Does he not agree that trade liberalisation is one of the greatest engines for relieving poverty? That is how the countries of south-east Asia went from undeveloped status to middle-income status. Is not one of the greatest threats to developing countries today the increase in protectionism, much of which exists among the advanced industrial countries, including the United States and Europe?

I totally agree with my noble friend I am sure that Hansard will correct me otherwise, but I think I did mention trade. I agree that trade is part and parcel of this, which is why we are working with the BII and British investment partnerships to ensure that we raise and leverage more financing to ensure sustainability. It is not just about providing aid; this is about development support, which allows countries to really progress directly themselves, and we need private finance and the private sector to work hand in glove with us on this.

My Lords, does the Minister, or rather do the Government, understand that there is a link between the super-rich getting richer—for example, five men have since 2020 been adding $14 million per hour to their wealth—versus 5 billion people who have fallen into greater poverty? There is a link between inequality and the whole issue of being able to mop up poverty. Do the Government understand that link?

The noble Baroness differentiated between me as a Minister of the Crown and the Government. I assure her that we are at one and we totally understand the connection that she makes, because it is right. That is why we must focus on the most vulnerable. Again, I reiterate our focus on issues of girls’ education and the empowerment of women, because it is the most vulnerable who suffer and inequalities fuel that. We will focus on this in many of our programmes. That is why my right honourable friend the Development Minister has published our figures beyond this year and into next year, to demonstrably show how we are increasing funding, notwithstanding the challenges we face with the reduction to 0.5%, to ensure that there is real transparency in the British Government’s spending.

My Lords, the White Paper makes several laudable commitments, some of which require significant upfront investments, such as access to basic services, and that brings us the uncomfortable question of how these projects will be resourced, given not one but two huge hits to our ODA budget: some 25% lost due to the UK abandoning its 0.7% commitment, and almost 30% of what is left being spent on housing refugees in the UK. Can the Minister confirm the net budget for overseas aid once both these factors are taken into account?

My Lords, the strategic decision to reduce was taken because of domestic pressures. It was right that we gave a commitment to return to 0.7%, and the Government stand by that. On the issue of domestic spending on refugees, we have always acted within the DAC rules and we continue to do so. I do not think a single noble Lord will dispute that it is right that we have taken responsibility for those coming to the UK, whether from Ukraine, from Hong Kong or coming directly from Afghanistan, as they have recently, and that we use that money to help support them. We will act within the DAC rules. It does mean, yes, that there is less spending there, but it also ensures that we fulfil the responsibility that we owe to those coming to the UK to rebuild their lives.