The failure of Boris Johnson and successive Tory governments to defend overseas aid has led to a fall in public support for it, the new international development minister has warned.
In revealing comments made just days before he was appointed to the role, Andrew Mitchell, a veteran defender of overseas aid, said that a fall in support for the first time in 18 months had been accompanied by a political failure to make the case for its benefits for the UK.
“The drop in support is not just cost of living, but because – unlike in the past under Blair, Brown, Cameron and May – the aid budget has not been defended,” Mitchell said. “When you have the PM describing UK overseas aid as ‘some giant cashpoint in the sky’ it’s not just wrong, but when the public faces hard times it damages support.”
Johnson used those words to describe the aid budget when he folded the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office in 2020.
Mitchell was responding to new data from the Development Engagement Lab (Del), based at University College London and the University of Birmingham. Its latest regular survey found that public support for maintaining or increasing the overseas aid budget fell to 50% at the end of October – down from 56% in June. Support had been at a record high since Johnson cut the aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% in the spring of 2021.
While the cost of living crisis has been blamed for falling public support for overseas aid, Mitchell said that earlier governments had been willing to make the case for the aid programme in periods of economic turbulence. “In 2010-12, in a time of austerity after the global financial crisis, we made the case for aid as strongly as we could and we saw public approval go up,” he said. “The difference is that we defended UK aid.”
Mitchell is now facing two major challenges to the aid budget in government. It is almost certain to be held down to 0.5% of gross national income for longer than planned as the new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, search for savings before the autumn.
However, Mitchell’s biggest challenge is piecing together how the aid money is being spent, as billions are now used to meet costs related to asylum seekers and refugees, including the Afghanistan and Ukraine programmes. The costs mean there is little ability to plan spending inside developing countries, with concerns some programmes will have to be cut.
The UK is also under immediate pressure to make an increased contribution to a major global fund to tackle deadly diseases. Canada and the US are understood to be among those pressuring Britain to increase its £1.4bn contribution in 2019. However, the government is understood to be considering a contribution in the region of £800m – less than half the requested amount.
Researchers at Del said the drop in public enthusiasm for UK overseas aid ended an 18-month streak of rising support. It fell particularly among younger, lower-income non-degree holders who voted for the Conservative or Brexit parties in the 2019 general election.
“The story of lost support is largely political,” said David Hudson,…