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Covid-19: Foreign Aid

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, what assessment they have made of (1) their foreign aid, and (2) their development spending, commitments.

My Lords, like nations around the world, the UK is experiencing a severe economic downturn due to the pandemic, which will affect the amount we spend on overseas development assistance this year and in future years. In light of this, we have prioritised our aid spending to respond to Covid-19, focus on poverty reduction, tackle climate change and champion girls’ education.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Integrating development and diplomacy is a major challenge, so how long will it take to achieve that and enable us to build back better post Covid-19? Since poverty is rising, as the Minister acknowledged, the impact of climate change is increasing and we have had cuts to date of £2.9 billion, will the Government publish a strategy for the new department to provide clarity for development partners, some of which are fighting for survival and all of which face an uncertain future? Will that strategy and the Government’s official development assistance be subject to scrutiny by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, working with a dedicated parliamentary committee to ensure that we maintain the UK’s global leadership in international development?

My Lords, we plan to set out a strategy in the near future as part of the integrated review. The aim of the new department is to bring the weight of our diplomatic network to support our development expertise and our development programming dealing with the rise in poverty and the climate change that the noble Lord points to. We are committed to working with our partners as we move through the merger, and I assure him that we are indeed committed to independent scrutiny and confirm that we will be keeping to ICAI.

My Lords, protecting freedom of religion or belief remains a pertinent issue in the developing world when more than 80% of the world’s population identify with a religion or belief system. My diocese has historic links with the Church of the Province of Myanmar, and during the pandemic many of its clergy have been providing volunteer support in understaffed hospitals. Can the Minister assure the House that, despite the almost £3 billion cut in the UK’s foreign aid budget, Her Majesty’s Government will continue to prioritise international freedom of religion and belief and recognise the contribution of religious groups in the development and support of their communities, particularly in times of crisis?

My Lords, I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are indeed committed to continuing to support the freedom of religion and belief around the world. We will also continue to work with and alongside faith groups. I agree with him that they have been incredible in their response to Covid-19. They are among the first to respond and can play an effective role in bringing about the behaviour change essential to slowing the spread of Covid and reducing infection and illness.

My Lords, the pandemic has had a devastating health and economic impact around the world. Women and girls have been disproportionately affected. Rates of gender-based violence have soared, in many places girls’ education has been disrupted, and they suffer from acute food insecurity. They have also had to take on additional caring duties for the sick. As my noble friend the Minister acknowledged, there will be less spent on ODA this year. Can she give assurances that the FCDO will continue to be a global leader in advancing gender equality, as well as promoting girls’ education?

I am grateful to my noble friend for highlighting the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 that we are seeing on women and girls. Advancing gender equality and women’s rights will remain a core part of our mission across government and within the new department. Since 2015 we have supported more than 8 million girls to get an education. Last year alone we provided 25 million women with life-saving contraception, and we will continue this work within the new department.

My Lords, the Government have many times reiterated their support for deploying development assistance to further education, especially of girls. This is to be applauded, because we all know that educating girls is a powerful development tool. However, with the limits on school attendance for reasons of poverty, violence or indeed the spread of Covid-19, and with a reduced budget, will the Government now give priority to investing significantly in online programmes and distance learning in the most severely educationally deprived countries, such as Afghanistan?

My Lords, we are continuing to prioritise girls’ education, particularly during this pandemic; as the noble Baroness says, many children are out of school at the moment. We are investing in remote learning but we need to make sure that we do so appropriately, given the difference in digital access around the world. We have adapted our programmes within Afghanistan through our Girls’ Education Challenge to make sure that we are reaching girls who are out of school, so that they can continue to learn and return to school when schools reopen.

My Lords, since the Foreign Secretary announced in July that there would be cuts of £2.9 billion in-year, there have been very few further details. Can the Minister rectify that? First, why are the cuts 19% when the anticipated fall in our gross national income is only between 10% and 14%? Secondly, where will the cuts fall by department, what is the value of these cuts, and when will details be forthcoming?

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, we are still waiting to see the impact of Covid-19 on the economy here in the UK, and therefore the related impact on 0.7%. We have maintained our flexibility to manage our overspend against an uncertain gross national income figure, and we will continue to do so as we approach the end of the year. We are committed to full transparency, and the statistics on international development will provide a detailed breakdown of our overspend across departments. We will also continue to update the development tracker online to show the latest on programmes and projects.

My Lords, African countries have been very hard-hit economically by the pandemic, and health spending clearly must be a priority. But will the Government work with others to make sure that cash transfers, which are so vital for those in the informal economies, especially women and girls, continue to be provided?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that Africa has been incredibly hard-hit. We absolutely continue to support cash transfers and indeed the wider social protection net. That is one of the best ways to get support directly to the people who so need it.

My Lords, sexual and gender-based violence is an epidemic affecting one in three women worldwide, but it receives only a miniscule proportion of global humanitarian spending—0.12% between 2016 and 2018. Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to working with the incoming US Administration and other donor countries to increase funding for prevention, and will they lead the way by pledging at least 1% of the UK’s aid spending to programmes combating sexual and gender-based violence?

My noble friend highlights the disturbing increase in gender-based violence that we have seen throughout Covid-19. The UK spends more than average on preventing gender-based violence, but I agree that there is more that we can do. I can commit to working with the US to increase our funding. We have a great opportunity in co-hosting the Action Coalition on Gender-based Violence this year, and I would very much welcome a meeting with her to discuss this further.

My Lords, last week I met representatives of the British Overseas Territories, who acknowledged that the funding that they had received since March to deal with the pandemic. But, regarding the second wave, they have had only the statement from September saying that

“in addition to the urgent assistance already delivered, we will support the territories as they deal with the medium and longer-term economic, public health and other impacts of the pandemic.”

Can the Minister assure the territories that these words will be backed up with financial support?

My Lords, I am very proud of the extensive support that we have given the overseas territories on Covid-19, from testing to the provision of kit and expert advice from PHE, as well as financial help. I speak with leaders of the overseas territories very regularly. Just last week I spoke to all the premiers to discuss what further support we will be offering them, and I look forward to our joint ministerial council with all the leaders of the overseas territories in two weeks’ time.

My Lords, the NGO Translators without Borders is working to provide information on Covid-19 in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where women in particular say they would be reluctant to accept a vaccine without more information in a language they speak and understand. The UK’s funding for TWB through the H2H Network ended recently, so I ask the Minister to look urgently at reinstating the necessary funds to encourage acceptance by the refugees of a vaccine when it is available.

My Lords, I agree that we must ensure that, when a vaccine is available, people have the appropriate information. We are supporting H2H through our funding, but I shall take that back to the department and come back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I will build on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The 2012 overseas territories White Paper commits the Government

“to meeting the reasonable assistance needs of Territories where financial self-sufficiency is not possible, as a first call on the aid budget.”

In light of the financial impact of Covid-19, can my noble friend confirm that this very specific commitment to our overseas territories remains government policy?

My Lords, I can commit to our financial support for the overseas territories. They have seen a variation in the cases of Covid—only nine territories have had cases—but most are heavily reliant on tourism and have seen their local economies collapse overnight. We have committed to sharing the vaccine with the overseas territories and we will continue with our health support and our financial support.