We still don’t know where the axe is going to fall.
On Wednesday, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, made a long-awaited announcement on planned aid spending for 2021-22. However, it was desperately short on detail. What we do know, though, is that overall expenditure looks set to fall by £4bn, with humanitarian response to be cut by almost half.
In the middle of a still-raging pandemic, the scale and speed of these cuts will have very direct, and profoundly negative, human consequences. And we know that the most vulnerable people, especially those with disabilities, are at greatest risk of being hardest hit.
The Integrated Review
At the beginning of March 2021, the Government set out its priorities for security, defence, development and foreign policy in its “Integrated Review”. What was included, and what was not, hints at what the future could look like for people with disabilities.
The bad news is that there wasn’t a single mention in the Review of the 1 billion people with disabilities around the world, 80% of whom live in low- or middle-income countries. People with disabilities have always been overrepresented among those in poverty, but at a time when they are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic – losing their livelihoods, shielding and dying at greater rates than those without disabilities – this omission is especially hard to accept.
The impact on refugees with disabilities
Cuts in humanitarian aid will do profound damage to the life chances of people with disabilities. In Lebanon, for example, Syrian refugees risk losing vital rehabilitation and psychosocial support – and consequently also their autonomy and the opportunity to live in health and dignity. Hundreds of infants with disabilities will not receive assistance in their early years, impeding the development of their full potential and increasing the risk that their disabilities will become permanent. Years of investment in local healthcare systems are at risk of going to waste.
Disability and international development
The UK has shown before that disability can be at the heart of international development. In 2018, Britain hosted the Global Disability Summit, launched an ambitious new Disability Inclusion Strategy and started collecting data on the inclusion of people with disabilities in its programmes. UK aid may now be under new management – under the recently merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – but these commitments and principles are more relevant today than ever before.
Boris Johnson’s flagship agenda in international development is girls’ education, but even here cuts are being made. Half of all children with disabilities in low-and-middle income countries are excluded from education and 42% of girls with disabilities do not currently finish primary school. If this is to be a meaningful effort, then inclusion – that is, education for all – must be its guiding principle.
Protection of Civilians
The UK has also recently revised its approach to protection of civilians in armed conflict, though this was somehow omitted from the Review. My colleagues and I know first-hand the devastating immediate, indirect and reverberating effects that conflict can have on individuals. Over the last decade, when explosive weapons have been used in populated areas 90% of those killed or injured have been civilians. The UK has an opportunity to lead the way in championing the protection of these people, by implementing its new approach, by promoting best practice everywhere and by lending its weight to international efforts to restrict the use of explosive weapons in built-up areas.
Mitigating the impact of the cuts
Now is a terrible time to be cutting overseas aid, and the speed at which it has been done only adds to the damage. People’s futures will be irreparably harmed and many lives will be lost as a result. But the UK can mitigate the impact by taking more seriously some of the commitments it has already made, in particular to the systematic inclusion of people with disabilities in its development and humanitarian programmes and to the meaningful protection of civilians in armed conflict.
The UK is a highly influential global leader, and what it does next will have ripple effects around the world. The aid cuts may be a done deal, but the Government’s commitments to inclusion and protection are still there to be fought for. Millions of people depend on the outcome.
Chief Executive, Humanity & Inclusion UK