As the UK Government announces cuts to its overseas aid budget, Foreign Editor David Pratt takes stock of those likely to be hardest hit and why such a move could prove short sighted on many levels

Some of them I can still see in my mind’s eye. Over the years there have been so many that their faces and lives blur into a montage of humanity.

In the slums of Nairobi and Port au Prince, the refugee camps of South Sudan or Iraq, the ramshackle hovels that pass for schools and hospitals in parts of Somalia or Afghanistan, wherever I encountered them they all had one thing in common – lives lived on the margins.

Perhaps because of their vulnerability, those I remember most vividly are almost always the elderly and very young.

People like Ndimba Nguli Muli, who at an estimated 76 years old – no-one was fully sure of her age – lived alone in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s biggest slums where perhaps as many as 700,000 people cram into an area two miles long by one mile wide.

For all her life Ndimba had been on the receiving end of all that Mathare could throw at her, the circumstances made only worse by the blindness that resulted during the birth of one of her eight children, all of whom bar one subsequently died.

When we met she told me of how she had a son who was shot dead in street violence and how just weeks earlier, while begging by the roadside, she was hit by a car and her right leg badly injured.

At night, Ndimba lies awake in the tumbledown wooden box that passes for her home listening to the gunshots that ring out as rival gangs clash in the teeming alleyways around her.

Of the lawlessness that is rife in Mathare, Ndimba says she herself has not been a victim, as she possesses nothing for anyone to steal. Asked how she survives, her reply was simple and to the point.

“If it were not for the support of my neighbours and the foreigners, God knows how I would eat this day or next,” she said. Those “foreigners” she referred to were, of course, the overseas aid agencies that provided help in Mathare and other slums in Nairobi where the hardship caused by urban poverty is almost unimaginable.

When it’s not the elderly bearing the brunt of the suffering caused by poverty or war in the world’s almost forgotten places, it’s the very young.

Youngsters like toddler Yap Ji Kany, whom I once came across with his mother standing in the mud and stagnant water outside the tarpaulin tent that was now home after they had been uprooted from their own village by fighting in one of South Sudan’s upsurges of ethnic violence.

It was that little boy’s eyes I’ll never forget, fixed on me as if they were drilling right into my own, rarely blinking, as if reading my thoughts. Old eyes these, not those you would expect of a one-year-old child. Somehow they seemed worldly eyes, damning, tender and terrified all at the same time.

What had these eyes already witnessed I couldn’t help wondering? What hardship, suffering and wickedness rather than the usual childhood wonderment had seared back through this youngster’s gaze to give him this look?

I remember, too, how a feverish sweat ran in streams down his face, congealing where it collided with the cream smeared on in a vain attempt to relieve the corrosive rash of an agonising skin infection that had broken out across Yap’s face and tiny body.

Here you have it. Two people, one elderly woman and one baby boy, two out of countless millions across the globe who through no fault of their own face enormous suffering that is often only alleviated by the support and generosity of others far removed from their lives on the other side of the world.

Make no mistake about it: these are the real people who stand to lose out by the slash in funding to overseas aid, from 0.7 per cent to 0.5% announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week.

Overseas aid has always been a divisive political issue in the UK. Those for and those against have always been staunch in their belief that it is either the right and moral thing to do or a waste of money and that “charity should begin at home”.

According to the pollsters YouGov, one group among whom the aid cuts is not controversial is said to be the “British Public”. If research conducted by YouGov in the run-up to last week’s announcement is accurate, then two-thirds (66%) say that reducing the amount spent on overseas aid is the right decision. Only 18% thought it the wrong call.

One poll alone, of course, does not necessarily reflect the true picture across the UK, for there is no denying the backlash that the Government’s decision engendered or the impact it will have on the most vulnerable around the world.

Even before last week’s announcement many warned of the writing on the wall as to the Government’s direction of political travel. The whole issue of overseas aid spending has never been a popular policy, particularly among Conservative voters.

The earlier merging of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had made a reduction of overseas aid spending likely even before the impact of Covid-19 was entirely apparent.

It was perhaps no real surprise then that the Government was more than willing to break the Conservative Party manifesto pledge to maintain the aid commitment and undermine a minimum target for spending that is enshrined in UK law.

Critics, meanwhile, say the Government’s explanation for the decision is misleading, justified as it was by the Chancellor on the basis of the need to help the UK economy as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opponents insist the 0.7% commitment already allows room for fluctuations in the UK economy and, as it has shrunk this year, £2.9 billion in funding has already been lost from aid projects globally.

It was a cut too far for Baroness Liz Sugg, Minister for Sustainable Development, who quit in protest, saying the Chancellor’s decision to scrap the law was “fundamentally wrong”.

Others, however, were more specific in the details as to who stands to suffer most. Jean-Michel Grand, executive director of Action Against Hunger, said: “We estimate that these cuts could see as many as three million women and children lose access to often life-saving nutrition services. Clinics will close, nurses will lose their jobs, and children will lose their lives.”

Kevin Watkins, chief executive at Save the Children, said the announcement by the Chancellor was “unprincipled, unjustified and profoundly harmful both to Britain’s reputation and more importantly to millions of people around the world”.

He said: “They are making these cuts against a backdrop of unprecedented reversals on child health, child survival, child malnutrition and education. Aid is a lifeline of support of children around the world,” he said.

Those who work in the humanitarian sector and correspondents like me who see the impact of aid up close already know the benefit UK aid has on the world, from keeping girls in school, to providing clean water, or fighting preventable disease that trap people in poverty. But getting that message across has always been a challenging one when a plethora of critical voices point to “wasted resources”, “vanity projects”, “lack of accountability”, and “corruption” among some beneficiaries of overseas aid. In the Daily Telegraph’s comments section last week one headline read: “It’s liberal hysteria to think cutting foreign aid will turn Britain into an international pariah.”

While pariah state is perhaps over the top, there’s no doubt that the UK’s reputation will be badly tarnished by the Government’s decision.

While saving or improving the lives of the world’s most marginalised people is the most obvious and morally correct reason why overseas aid is vital to maintain, there are other motives driven less by purely humanitarian concerns.

“For the Blair Government, and those that followed it, up to and including Theresa May’s administration, the foreign aid budget was a way of buying influence and friends,” observes Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of UK politics at the University of Leeds.

“By investing in developing nations, the UK could help to develop emerging markets, and that investment allowed them to reap the financial rewards of close trading links with developing nations,” wrote Honeyman recently in the online platform The Conversation.

For many critics of the Government’s decision it also makes a mockery of its claims for a “Global Britain”. These critics point to the incredible value aid efforts bring not just to humanity but also in increasing the UK’s soft power by stabilising areas of instability and helping strengthen the rules-based international order.

Aid also plays a vital role in the distribution of any Covid-19 vaccine being developed in combating a disease that is transnational and no respecter of borders or societies. As health officials and others have consistently pointed out, the virus cannot be fought in only one place but must include communities across the world, rich and poor.

As Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear in an opinion piece in the Financial Times on Friday: “Reducing our overseas aid commitment at this critical time is morally wrong, politically foolish and an act of national self-harm. Its impact will be felt not only in refugee camps and conflict zones but also much closer to home.”

Yes, it will rebound on us here at home. But ask any aid worker engaged in the fight against poverty, hunger, disease and displacement across the world, and they will tell you that it’s in those refugee camps and conflict zones that the UK’s missing billions in aid provision will be most severely felt.

Already the humanitarian sector is under near-unprecedented pressure. The extent of this was highlighted by a survey carried out by Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, in May this year.

A survey of 116 Bond members found that 50 (43%) believed they would not survive the next six months without urgent additional support as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, reported the UK magazine, ThirdSector.

The impact was greatest on smaller organisations, the survey concluded, many of which could now be forced to close.

“NGOs are doing everything in their power to absorb the impact Covid-19 is having on their organisations to avoid any adverse consequences on the vital services they provide to people living in poverty around the world,” said Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond.

“But if more than a third of organisations, particularly small specialist ones, fold over the next six months, more vulnerable people will be at greater risk of going without food, clean water, education and healthcare,” Draper added.

It’s a similar story among those humanitarian agencies dealing primarily with disasters and emergencies around the world of which there are no shortage over and above the Covid-19 pandemic.

Faced with ongoing crises in places like Syria, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and newer ones in places like Ethiopia, the demand on resources is massive – precisely at the moment donors are drawing down on their commitment.

Just last week before the UK announcement, a number of countries attending the international donors conference on Afghanistan pledged 15 to 20% less funding than in 2016 at the last gathering citing uncertainties over the peace process and difficulties securing commitments from governments financially strapped by the coronavirus pandemic.

In short, these are hard times in the humanitarian sector and the UK’s overseas aid spending cuts will only make things much harder and may even put pressure on other nations to follow suit. At a time when the UK has just announced a £16bn rise in defence spending, the cuts to overseas aid are a particularly bitter pill to swallow for many within the humanitarian sector.

Almost certainly those most in need around the world will know or care little about how much the UK is spending on “hard power”.

It’s “soft power”, after all, that brings them the necessities they need in the form of food, clean water, shelter, education, hospitals, and hope of rising out of poverty. This is what matters to most to them, as it should all of us, including the UK Government.