As Joe Biden’s administration prepares for the White House, a new era of global multilateralism may be about to begin. Simultaneously, Britain is less than a month away from taking the presidency of the G7. Now is the time for Global Britain to step up to the challenge of global leadership, which is why I am concerned about the loss of nerve on our aid budget.
I have long argued that we need to invest more in both Britain’s hard power and soft power alike. It’s more important than ever. We need to be a credible partner to the United States now that the awful Trump years are over, and a strong friend to partners across the world such as Canada and Australia – the latter of which is being bullied almost daily by China – and those closer to home, such as the European Union.
We know the world is changing and we need the ability to try to shape it. There are two models for human development in the 21st century. The first is the Western liberal model: of human rights, of government under laws and politicians under the control of their peoples. The second is the new authoritarian model: of states and parties above law, human freedom increasingly controlled by and curtailed surveillance states, and with human rights – and humanity – diminished. Our system is not perfect and nor are we, but I know which version of the future I want.
To use our power effectively, we need integrated power, used wisely. The defence spending announced by the Prime Minister ahead of the spending review was a huge confident stride forward but, the very next week, the plan to cut foreign aid from 0.7 per cent represented a stumble back. If it is put to a vote in its current form, I will have to vote against.
The instability caused by Covid-19 and climate change threaten to destabilise the poorest countries of the world. As the British UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs said last week: “it would be a significant success to get to the end of 2021 without major famine.” With 235 million people around the globe in need of humanitarian assistance, the former development secretary Andrew Mitchell warns that the cut to aid proposed will deny more than two million the help we gave last year.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has already subjugated African nations through unserviceable debts, imported Chinese workers into African countries with burgeoning youth unemployment and financed infrastructure projects for leaders who turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. We cannot allow a new “scramble for Africa” that embeds Chinese companies and capital in a way that dominates private sectors and crushes civil societies.
That can only happen if we use aid for what it is best for, and for what our election manifesto declared we would use it for: ending preventable deaths of mothers and under-fives, putting girls into school and tackling climate change. Every one of them a manifesto commitment as clear as our levelling up agenda. I am a fan of political parties keeping manifesto commitments.
That doesn’t mean that I think all aid money is spent well, or that it could not be improved. The life-saving aid is worth every penny and there is an argument for spending a higher proportion of aid on development in the poorest nations. But too much goes on questionable economic development. I personally would like to see an end to the binary and entirely unhelpful debate about aid: good-or-bad.
Today, truth is under attack from authoritarian regimes and conspiracy theorists, from Russia Today and Chinese state TV. For both our national interests and for the defence of global truth-telling, we need a BBC World Service properly funded and recognised as a key tool for the development of free thought and free societies.
“When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, he said that what he really wanted in prison was a radio, that would enable him to listen to the BBC World Service,” so said former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook. For me, as a reporter living in the Soviet Union in the late 1990s. I well remember then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev describing, when he was being held in captivity during the first Soviet putsch in 1991, how he tried to find a small transistor radio in his Crimean dacha, so that could get the BBC Russian Service, to find out the truth of what was happening in his country. I have rarely felt prouder.
With a little more flexibility in aid funding rules, there are other remarkable things that we could do. The Oxford vaccine; affordable, life-saving and developed with the UK government, is a bright British light at the end of a deadly and depressing tunnel, but as Unicef UK has said: “vaccines can’t distribute themselves”. We should be spending aid money getting that vaccine to the world and helping those whose health budgets could not afford it. What an achievement that would be for our nation. What an act of global generosity.
However, these are debates for the future. The current system is not perfect, but we promised 0.7 per cent, and we need to deliver it.
Bob Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight.