The turn of the decade marked the beginning of the ‘Decade for Action’ – the ten-year push to achieve the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals are a collection of interlinked goals, agreed by all 193 UN territories, that are a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all“. These goals address the global challenges that we all face, such as poverty, inequality, gender equality, climate change, environmental degradation and peace and justice (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The COVID19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact globally, wreaking havoc not just on global health, but on inequality, poverty, climate change, gender equality, education and economic development. At the recent turn of the decade, the SDGs were looking less likely to be achieved – with projections suggesting that 6% of the global population would still be living in extreme poverty by the end goal of 2030. However, following the COVD19 pandemic, this looks to be even higher, and it’s not just global poverty seeing a backwards slide in light of the pandemic. During the crisis, at least 70 countries have halted childhood vaccination programmes, and in the UK itself, health services for cancer screening, non-COVID19 infectious diseases and family planning have been severely interrupted or neglected, potentially reversing decades of improvement in public health. The impact that COVID has had, and will continue to have, on the achievement of the SDGs is astronomical, and whilst as a global community, we have tools to combat this, our response to this global challenge stems down to whether achieving a ‘sustainable future’ is in the policy agenda of our countries politicians. For the UK, the situation looks bleak.
One of the main ways in which the SDGs can be achieved within this next decade is a concentration on development aid – which is “financial aid given by governments to support the economic, environmental, social and political development of developing countries”. Development aid differs from humanitarian aid, in the sense that development aid focuses on long-term poverty alleviation, rather than short-term responses. The UK has long been one of the worlds biggest foreign aid donors, consistently being one of the only countries to commit to and achieve the UN’s target of committing 0.7% of the annual budget to expenditure on foreign aid. However, 2020 has been the year in which the UK has backtracked on its commitment to “promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”, with both the DFID merger with the Foreign Office back in June and now the reduction of our commitment of 0.7% of our annual budget to 0.5%. This has come in parallel to proposals to increase national defence spending, and restrict employment in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to just British nationals – limiting the talent pool in which FCDO will recruit from and drastically reducing the diverse talent pool to recruit from which is essential for a effective, impactful foreign aid strategy. This year has not only revealed our governments commitment to upholding and increasing economic inequality within the UK, but the DFID merger and cut to the foreign aid budget demonstrates a governmental commitment to increasing inequality and poverty within the global sphere. Whilst the COVID19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the reversal of some of the developments made globally towards achieving the SDGs, the cutting of the aid budget and the DFID-FCO merger will further snowball this regression in global development.
Many critics of the UK’s historic commitment to the 0.7% expenditure on foreign aid argue that we need to focus on ‘protecting our own first’, inciting nationalistic ideologies and focusing developing on a British identity rather than a global identity. However, to what extent can we say that our government is even protecting its own in light of this pandemic, when we have prioritised the protection of the middle and upper classes to the expense of the working class. Poorer areas of the UK have experienced some of the highest COVID-19 death rates and have faced higher levels of financial hardship, have experienced a disproportionate share of the COVID19 burden (which has had an even higher effect on those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds). If we were protecting our own first, disabled people would have been better protected (not just physically, but in terms of financial security too), yet disabled peoples death rates are 2-3 times higher than those of non-disabled people due to this troubling fixation with brushing this off as “well, they had underlying health conditions anyway”. If we were truly protecting our own first, we would have protected young peoples livelihoods, however, 1 in 3 young people (age 18-24) have been furloughed or lost their job (twice that of working adults overall), and many young people have been messed around by their universities, and left more vulnerable to the long-term scarring effects of early career instability and unemployment.
Part of the modern British identity, as argued by former PM David Cameron back in 2011, has also been in our commitment to help the worlds poorest, spending aid money transparently and efficiently. A vast amount of the UK’s economic growth and development has been off the back of exploitation of poorer countries – through colonialism, slavery, and the continued extraction of natural resources in poorer countries to protect our own biodiversity. So why, as a nation, are we so happy to exploit these poorer countries and their resources for our own economics needs, yet so angry at the idea of redistributing a small portion of our GDP (our military spending is 2.1% of GDP, for comparison) to foreign aid? Surely, in pursuit of ‘building back better’, as our politicians keep reminding us is the priority, we should focus on not just building ourselves back to our pre-COVID days (if that’s even a desirable end point), but the countries around the world that we have benefited from the exploitation and underdevelopment of. Whilst the COVID19 recovery is inevitably going to be an economically challenging time for the UK, especially considering the end of the Brexit transition period by the end of 2020, now is the time to strengthen our international commitments, rather than isolate ourselves even further.
Written for Kairos Europe