Government Support for NGOs and Churches in Developing Nations: Covid-19 — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:45 pm on 25th March 2021.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:45 pm, 25th March 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I thank Jim Shannon for his contribution and for securing the debate, and wish him a very happy birthday. We have known for a long time that the interests of minority religious communities and those seeking to shine a light on human rights abuses around the world have no greater champion in the House than him. He proved that again today, and we thank him for it.

As the hon. Member said in his opening remarks, the covid-19 pandemic is a global economic and health crisis. The virus does not respect international borders, and while one country is at risk all countries are at risk. I add my thanks to all the UK charities, NGOs, faith groups and Churches that have been working on the frontline day in and day out, delivering life-saving care to people living in some of the poorest parts of the world.

The people who have been working throughout the pandemic, supplying aid and assistance to developing countries and countries ravaged by war, or in areas devastated by drought or flood, deserve our most sincere and heartfelt thanks. As so often during the pandemic, it is they who have become the trusted voice in those communities, raising awareness of public health preventative measures, tackling vaccine disinformation and encouraging people to take up the vaccine where it has been available.

As well as being able to deliver effective humanitarian aid and meaningful long-term assistance, they are so often the institutions that people turn to for social and spiritual support. For what they are doing in the most trying and difficult circumstances they deserve our deepest gratitude and support. They do not deserve to have the rug pulled from under them when they are trying to deliver that help to people living in crisis. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened.

In the middle of a global pandemic, at a time when many of the poorest people on the planet are more vulnerable to hunger and disease than ever before, the UK Government—the Government of one of the richest countries in the world—have decided arbitrarily to reduce the help that they give to those poor communities. Not only is the decision to cut foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP a betrayal of those people and of our NGOs and the charity sector, it must also be the final abandonment of what little was left of the UK’s reputation for moral leadership in the world.

What makes that betrayal utterly grotesque is the fact that, having announced that they were taking the money away from those poor communities, the same Government announced that they were preparing to spend billions of pounds to increase their stockpile of nuclear weapons. In my opinion, and that of the Scottish National party and, I believe, of most decent people, to do such a thing is utterly abhorrent and deeply immoral.

Earlier this week, the United Nations published figures showing that around 34 million people are struggling with what it calls “emergency levels” of acute hunger. That means they are just one step away from starvation. At the same time, the UK’s NGOs and charities reported that demands for their services have increased, particularly around healthcare, water and sanitation, food supplies and humanitarian relief. Against that backdrop, whereas every other G7 member responded to the covid pandemic by increasing international aid, the UK alone in that group chose to cut its aid budget for this year.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate and to hearing him explain how the UK thought it appropriate, justifiable or morally acceptable to take money away from starving people and starving children, and from preventing the spread of coronavirus, and instead divert funds into the purchase of even more nuclear weapons. Let us be in no doubt that right now the UK charity sector and our NGOs are in severe financial crisis. Many are at risk of closure because public fundraising has been substantially reduced. The NGO and charity sectors are currently being squeezed from all sides. They are bearing the brunt of Government aid cuts and at the same time having their income from their traditional tried and tested sources of fundraising decimated. High street charity shops, town centre collections and fundraising fetes have all but disappeared because of the pandemic, yet, as the hon. Member for Strangford says, rarely have they been in greater demand.

Bond, the UK network for organisations working in development and humanitarian aid, found that nearly three quarters of the organisations they represent are experiencing financial difficulty. Their income stream has been badly hit, with 81% saying that their public fundraising has been seriously or very seriously affected. The double crisis of a drop in income and a severe cut from Government grant means that these charities face significant challenges in funding their programmes and keeping their organisations afloat. Against that background, the Government cut funding, and almost two thirds of NGOs expect the demand on their services to increase in the next 12 months.

As I have said, this is almost a perfect storm of cuts in aid amid a global pandemic. Those working on the ground are having to do much more, but with much less. I pay tribute, as the hon. Member for Strangford did, to the small church groups and charities that work so hard. He gave a couple of wonderful examples of churches in his constituency that work in Malawi and Swaziland to try to alleviate the worst effects.

My own Argyll and Bute constituency is home to the marvellous and wonderful Mary’s Meals, which uses schools to provide hot meals to 1.5 million of the world’s poorest children every day. It has had to find new ways to feed those children as the pandemic has closed schools and the home has now become the primary place of learning. Thankfully, by working with Governments, community leaders and on-the-ground partners, Mary’s Meals has developed new ways of distribution, and will continue to do so until it is safe, but it is more expensive and more time consuming and will require more money, not less.

Of course, Mary’s Meals is not alone. The financial effect of the pandemic can be felt throughout. In January, I was privileged to join David Linden on a virtual tour to see the great work being done by Compassion UK in Togo. Compassion UK is a Christian charity dedicated to empowering every child that it can who has been left vulnerable through poverty. It works in 24 developing countries and is living proof of what can be done with just a little money to give life-changing support to mothers and babies in countries where infant mortality and death from pregnancy complications are, sadly, very high. The pandemic is having a major effect on its work and a significant impact on its clients, who are frightened to go to hospital, are worried about going to anti-natal clinics, and are not attending vaccination appointments for their babies.

Thankfully, Compassion UK has been able to use the years of trust that it has built up in local communities to find networks of support for these mothers and their babies, and provide vital masks and sanitation equipment so that they can protect themselves and their families. I spoke to Compassion UK this morning, and the charity has asked me to extend an invitation to the Minister to join it on a virtual tour to Togo, to see for himself the remarkable, life-changing work that it can do with the tiny amount of UK aid money allocated to it. I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford will agree that the Minister will be hugely impressed with what he sees, should he choose to accept that invitation.

Mr Efford, those in the sector say that falling income has made it more difficult and more expensive to deliver aid. Yesterday, I spoke to the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which has been delivering humanitarian aid for decades in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the middle east. They have been assisting the Malawian Government in their national response to the covid pandemic, and are supporting 11,000 slum dwellers and migrants in India with food and sanitation kits.

Every charity has a different story to tell, but they are absolutely united in their unequivocal condemnation of this Government’s decision to reduce overseas aid. They are as one in saying that the Government must keep their commitment to the most marginalised communities and revert to the 0.7% target—a commitment that was made in their election manifesto.

Overseas aid has never been more vital, particularly as the impact of covid is in danger of setting back international development for a decade. I would therefore ask the Minister how the UK Government can cut aid to the most vulnerable people in the world at this time, in a year in which they will chair the G7 and take over the presidency of the COP. How can they claim to be a world leader but, at the time of greatest need, deliberately cut off the supply of aid to the poorest and most vulnerable?

I know that the Minister will say that the UK Government are still one of the biggest contributors to humanitarian aid, and he is right, but that is exactly how it should be. As one of the richest countries in the world—and, let us face it, one that became fabulously wealthy at the expense of countries in Africa, Asia and the middle east, who are now in desperate poverty—we have a moral responsibility to look after those people now, in the moment of their greatest need. The reversal of this 0.7% decision must be the first step in doing that.

This pandemic should have been an opportunity for the UK Government to show genuine leadership. Instead, they have used the pandemic to turn their back on the most vulnerable people in the world. In so doing, not only are this Government reneging on a legally binding spending commitment, but they are also breaking one of their manifesto commitments and their promises. Pulling the rug out from under outstanding NGOs, faith groups and Churches, who battle every day against impossible odds to deliver aid to those who need it most, is unforgivable.

I will finish by reminding the Minister of the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that, when it comes to this pandemic, and the world in which we now live,

“none of us is safe until all of us are safe”.