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Cutting compassion

Cutting compassion

Britain’s approach to humanitarian aid has become transactional. That’s not a necessity – it’s a political choice


One of the questions that has been on my mind this week is whether the UK is going to list the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. Given the atrocities we witness daily in Ukraine and the shameless refusal by Downing Street to come clean over Partygate, this might seem a marginal, perhaps even an eccentric preoccupation. 

But if the UK proscribes the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organisation, then it will make it difficult, if not impossible, for aid agencies to help the millions of people enduring what is still the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. There are about 20 million people in Houthi-controlled parts of the country; more than two million children are suffering malnutrition through hunger. 

Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, visited Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, in Riyadh a couple of weeks ago, in an attempt to get the Saudis to open the taps on oil to ease energy prices in the UK. The Saudis meanwhile, have been fighting and funding the long civil war against the Houthis in neighbouring Yemen – and, for a long time, Saudi Arabia has been lobbying Western governments to cut the Houthis off by listing them as terrorists. And then, not long after the Prime Minister’s return from Riyadh, the word in Westminster is that the UK government is working on the imminent listing of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation and seeking to persuade other countries to do the same. No one of course, publicly, is linking the two; but you’d have to be blissfully naive not to join the dots.  

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s editor’s voicemail, I wanted to talk about how Britain’s humanitarianism has become more transactional. 

To be clear, this is not to pick sides in the war on Yemen nor make the case for the Houthis. One of the under-reported misery stories of 2022 has been the escalation of violence in Yemen. In the course of the past seven years, the war between the Saudi-led coalition backing the official government and the Iran-backed Houthis has claimed, some say, more than 350,000 lives. In the last few months, the Houthis have launched missile and drone attacks back over the border into Saudi and its ally the United Arab Emirates. As the war worsens, the UN predicts that as many as 19 million people will go hungry in the coming months and 160,000 people face famine. 

Whichever side you take, the case for humanitarian aid is unarguable. But, the point is that Britain’s aid is becoming less humanitarian; instead, in a host of ways, it’s becoming more political. If you were able to join us at the ThinkIn this week on foreign aid you’ll know exactly that, and if you didn’t get the chance, please do go to the Tortoise website and listen to it. You’ll know, at least you’ll understand then, the context.

Consider this. Last year, the UK government abandoned its promise to put 0.7 per cent of its budget into foreign aid. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, will tell you that he had no option but to cut foreign aid by £4bn because he was responding to realities beyond his control, i.e. the costs of the Covid pandemic. But inside Government, there are senior officials who say that he is of course, making a political choice: the Treasury has become obsessed by finding spending cuts to meet Sunak’s political objective of cutting income tax before the next election. And they point out that, originally, the chancellor promised that the aid cut was temporary. And yet, there was tellingly, no word of a return to 0.7 per cent in the Spring Statement and Whitehall insiders say the Treasury is already preparing the ground to make the foreign aid cut permanent.  

Then there’s the “merger”, as it was called, of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development in 2020. It was, as predicted, not so much a merger but more of a takeover. In the end, the diplomats now get the final say over the spending of the development money. And this was political in that development spending – said to be wasteful, woke and without any consideration for the national interest – had become a Tory bugbear. And now, since it’s come under the control of the foreign secretary, aid has become geopolitical: i.e. humanitarian spending has to serve the UK’s commercial and strategic interests.   

In recent weeks, the team in the office of Liz Truss, the foreign secretary not much known for her knowledge or interest in development, has been working away at the Government’s new international development strategy. There have been reports of cuts to climate aid; cuts to emergency aid; cuts to development spending; only the women and girls agenda has, allegedly, been spared. 

But the truth is likely to be less drastic; talk to people on the inside of this process and they’ll say that there have been so many drafts of the paper that, at some stage or other, all of the worst fears were true. But just as the international development strategy was due to be published, it was delayed. Because, behind closed doors, Boris Johnson is being heavily lobbied to restore Britain’s leadership in international development – a leadership position that, in Europe at least, the British appear to have ceded to the French. And the fear is that the UK, in cutting aid and cutting deals, is cutting itself out of the global conversation.

And then, when you look at the situation in Ukraine, and immigration into the UK, while only 2,700 visas for Ukrainian refugees have been issued as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme (less than 10 per cent of the 28,000 applications in the first fortnight), there’s also a political debate going on. One that involves foreign aid. About whether some foreign aid money can be used to help UK councils meet the housing costs for those families fleeing the war. 

Nearly a month ago, when Russia’s invasion was just two weeks old and there were then already half a million Ukrainian refugees, the UK had issued just 50 visas. Simon Jenkins wrote a piece in The Guardian that I can’t stop thinking about. “Ukrainian refugees, meet Britain’s hostile environment”, it was called; and he said: “The obsession with halting migration has entered the Home Office soul, a department now institutionally xenophobic. The result is shameful.”

There’s an argument in the UK about what got us here, how a country that prided itself on its compassion has come, institutionally at least, to seem so cold. Less caring about those in need abroad; less welcoming to those seeking a home here. And it’s easy to blame the bureaucracy – civil service paper pushers, government IT systems or budgetary constraints. But this is not accidental administrative error; it’s a pattern of personal, political choices. 

In the question of how the UK handles the Houthis – coming, as it does, so close on the heels of Boris Johnson’s cap in hand visit to Riyadh – the prime minister faces another choice. Not a marginal or peripheral one, but a choice about the character of Britain in the world. Whether the United Kingdom is, in the words of Mr Johnson, “generous, welcoming and engaged in the world” or in fact, a weaker, needier country that, in the eyes of the world, is nastier.