Mark Sheard, CEO of World Vision UK writes
In the wake of the Conservative Party Conference, there is a lot of discussion about Levelling Up, Building Back Better, and Global Britain – and whether those slogans can be realistically converted into policy and meaningful change. But there is a startling lack of conversation around applying those buzzwords and catchphrases internationally. The new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss MP, made it clear in her first speech as Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) that her key focus was on trade, and barely mentioned development and foreign aid at all – despite its centrality within the department.
This approach seems all the more disconcerting in light of the new report we – international children’s charity World Vision UK – have just published. The report – Futures Undisrupted: Living up to the UK’s commitments to children – highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, and climate change are creating the perfect storm of adverse conditions for children across the globe, increasing their vulnerabilities to poverty, environmental hazards and disasters, violence, exploitation and abuse.
Due to the huge disruptions caused by COVID-19 across every society in the world, over 1.5 billion children (almost 80%) are suffering secondary effects of the pandemic, such as falling into extreme poverty, lost learning and educational setbacks, reduced access to crucial healthcare, malnutrition, violence, and exploitation.
These effects of COVID-19 are combining with the worsening conditions of climate change to significantly alter the lives and life trajectories of girls and boys all over the world. More than a billion children face an ‘extremely high risk’ of climate change effects due to flooding, drought, and other climate-related impacts.
Additionally, over 400 million children are living in areas affected by conflict, disrupting their homes and family lives, the repercussions of which add even more often insurmountable barriers to children seeking to grow to live a healthy, stable, and productive life.
Ultimately, the key takeaway from this report is that – due to the combined threats of COVID-19, conflict, and climate change – development spending is more vital now than ever before; this is in stark contrast to the direction of the FCDO under Liz Truss.
Speaking in a fringe event, Liz Truss set out an admirable goal:
“What I’m focussed on is making sure the money we do spend is spent well; I want to prioritise girls and women, making sure girls get a good education.”
However, It is hard to reconcile this laudable aim with the dramatic aid budget cuts made earlier this year; the FCDO’s education budget was slashed by 40%. This risks undermining the Foreign Secretary’s position, as well as the Cabinet Office’s commitment, made in March this year, to get 40 million more girls in developing countries into education by 2025.
The former international trade secretary spoke at length, describing how establishing wider trade opportunities would lead to greater influence, diplomatic ties, and prosperity for the UK. Her main argument is that by investing in trade relations with developing nations – instead of contributing directly through foreign aid – we can somehow improve conditions for the children and communities living in the poorest conditions. Unfortunately, when corruption, conflict, and class divides are pronounced in any part of the world, the money needed for trade can end up not so much trickling down as being dammed at the top.
Instead of short-term investment in trade deals, the better long-term strategy – as illustrated by our report – is to renew our specific Overseas Development Aid commitments to investing in education and children more broadly. Trade is good and is an important part of the economic growth of a country, but if a less economically developed country (LEDC) does not receive the support and understanding its population needs to set up new businesses or is ravaged by conflict creating an unstable and fragile environment, trade deals will not lead to long-term sustainable development or will have a limited impact on the well-being of the most vulnerable communities.
Trade should not be pursued at the expense of international aid. Investing in solving fundamental societal problems at their root – through education – will naturally lead to increased opportunities in the long run for our nation — and should this not be our goal, if we truly wish to live up to the self-imposed title of Global Britain?