The British government has been accused of abandoning people in the global south after it failed to commit to boosting its spending on a fund established to fight three of the world’s deadliest diseases: malaria, tuberculosis and Aids.
Liz Truss’s new administration became the only major world power not to raise its spending at a UN pledging event for the Global Fund, a highly successful 20-year-old initiative, shocking global health campaigners. The long-planned pledging conference was left $3.76bn (£3.32bn) short of its target of $18bn.
The UK said it would make a pledge later, but aid agencies pointed out that Truss had found time to lift the cap on bankers’ bonuses and to commit at least £2.3bn in military aid to Ukraine in 2023.
David Lammy, the UK’s shadow foreign secretary, said cynicism was creeping into some African leaders’ views of the UK approach to aid. Speaking at the UN in New York, Lammy said the global south’s attitude to the war in Ukraine and its economic effects was coloured in part by how the west addressed issues of hunger, climate and debt.
“I am worried at the signs of a growing concern in the global south about a deep fear about a prolonged war, and its effect on their populations. One prime minister said to me: ‘Look, you have to understand that we’re a democracy. But we’re a fragile democracy, and when food prices are rising as high as they are, and our populations get angry, it undermines democracy itself.’ There’s a lot of worry and fear really about 2023 and what that means for their populations.”
He added: “As western leaders, we have to hear that. I think that I’m afraid what I’ve picked up from countries is a real concern about UK policy towards the global south. There is cynicism from some member states, and real questioning about all the inconsistencies in our approach.”
It was not just the cut in the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP under Boris Johnson’s government, Lammy said, but the shift to bilateral, as opposed to multilateral, aid and the likelihood that the aid budget would be used to pay a £3bn bill for Ukrainian refugees in the UK.
“What does stepping back from your multilateral commitments mean? It means lives lost as a consequence. Where’s the highest TB in the world? India, Where is the highest HIV rate in the world? Africa. What is the world’s worst global killer? Malaria. It undermines what we’re saying about the importance of Commonwealth nations.
“It undermines the alliance that is so important to build in relation to Ukraine, and it plays into the narrative that if you’re looking for support, and finance, then look to China, not to countries like the UK. So they’re pointing to that sort of inconsistency. And I think it’s very worrying.”
The US has already committed to contributing $6bn to the Global Fund over the next three years, a 30% increase on its last replenishment. Several other long-term public donors also increased their pledges by 30%, including Canada, Germany and the European Commission.
Meanwhile, private sector donors have committed more funding, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which committed a record $912m, and (Red), which raises funds from companies to help eliminate HIV/Aids, with a pledge of $150m.
Lammy said: “In the past I have said Britain’s foreign policy has become too transactional, but this isn’t even transactional. This is just ill-thought-out. I’ve not met any single country in the world that thinks that Britain’s aid cuts were a good idea for them or more importantly Britain. It’s upsetting to allies like America, but also France, Japan, all of whom are stepping up”.