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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:58 pm on 25th March 2021.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 3:58 pm, 25th March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Efford.

I will begin by paying tribute to Jim Shannon; I wish him a very happy birthday too. He was one of the very first Members to welcome me to this House, and our common Christian faith and commitment to humanitarianism, human rights, and international development mean that we have often found ourselves in the same debates over the years, raising very similar concerns.

He knows that the House has a huge affection for him, and I am always delighted to hear him speak on these crucial issues. Indeed, I endorse many of the points he has made today, not least around the 0.7% commitment and our moral duties as a country. He is absolutely right to have illustrated the crucial role that NGOs, and particularly faith-based NGOs and Churches, play in both international development and humanitarianism, not least in response to this current pandemic.

I thank the SNP spokesperson and commend the critical work of agencies based in the devolved nations as well, such as the Wales for Africa programme, many of the Scottish organisations mentioned today, and those in Northern Ireland to which the hon. Member for Strangford referred. They all play a critical part in this country’s response to the challenges that the world faces and reflect very powerfully on our moral intent as a country —one that is sadly being undermined by the current Government, which I will return to in due course.

Having worked myself for a Christian NGO, World Vision, I have seen first-hand the work that World Vision and other faith-based organisations do in many crises. I often reflect on its work with the HIV/AIDS pandemic that I witnessed in places such as Malawi, which has close links with Scotland and Wales—I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV/AIDS—and on its work responding to disasters and catastrophes, such as the Boxing day tsunami in 2004. I saw how World Vision worked not only with its own partner organisations and its staff around the world but with other faith-based organisations, including those of the Islamic faith in many of the countries affected, to respond to the devastation that left a quarter of a million people dead.

The very morals and values on which basis such generous and selfless acts are done by both these organisations and their donors are inspired by the same beliefs that drive many people in their faith and, indeed, many Christians. As it says in the ancient prophets—the hon. Member for Strangford quoted the Gospels, but I will quote Isaiah 1:17:

“Learn to do right;
seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.”

Or we could look at Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

It is no surprise that Church and faith-based organisations have come to play a critical role in empowering the most marginalised and healing the wounds left by war, natural disasters or, indeed, this pandemic.

I think about the work of the Somaliland Muslim community in my own constituency helping to rebuild their country and to encourage its development since the conflicts of the early 1990s; I serve as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland. I also think about the remarkable generosity of our Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities, and of their related organisations. Faith, belief and moral duty are incredible motivators and they enable people to do incredible things in some of the most trying circumstances around the world.

Let us reflect on what challenges we face with the covid crisis. Scotland’s International Development Alliance pointed out:

“It has been said that this disease “does not discriminate”—but that’s not true. If you are already a marginalised or vulnerable group, this pandemic will affect you more.”

That is very true. Beyond the immediate death toll and the devastating impact it has had in this country and in so many others, the pandemic has highlighted how those who are often marginalised, other minorities, front-line workers and those on marginal incomes who are already struggling to make ends meet have been disproportionately affected by covid-19 and its indirect impacts.

The crisis has highlighted the gaps in gender equality and made them worse. It has worsened economic inequalities, affected education, and diverted resources from other healthcare and disease challenges. It has allowed repressive regimes to threaten human rights further. It has created the space for extremism to flourish from Mozambique to the Sahel. It has destabilised fragile states and Governments and in some cases, it has tragically taken the lives of both political and faith leaders as well. The impact on those marginal groups, as I said, has been horrendous.

Let us look at health. Even before covid-19, more than half of the world’s population still did not have access to all essential health services and unfortunately that has gotten worse. I have spoken to many people from Sierra Leone to Malawi and from many other contexts over recent months. Until the pandemic hit in 2019, we had actually witnessed a steady decline in maternal and child death rates around the world, including a huge boost in funding for childhood immunisation, which increased by 41% since 2010 according to the UN.

Those accomplishments now risk being in vain as the World Health Organisation has reported that 70% of surveyed countries have seen a decrease in the number of routine immunisations, and major shortfalls in emergency units and facilities. Again, listening to Scottish organisations the other week about the situation facing some of Malawi’s hospitals was absolutely shocking.

Aaron Oxley, executive director of RESULTS UK, has stated that at least 80 million children under the age of one are at risk of missing out on routine vaccines for diseases like measles, polio and diphtheria. He stated that the impacts of covid-19 on TB might add 1.4 million deaths, and that 50 million children in Pakistan and Afghanistan may now not receive a polio vaccine in an area where polio is a real threat. STOPAIDS, with which I work closely, has stated that 11.5 million people have had inconsistent access to the crucial antiretroviral drugs for HIV over the pandemic period, and 75% of the UN’s “Global Fund” HIV/AIDS programme has reported moderate to high levels of disruption to service delivery.

We have seen huge economic impacts: there has been an impact on global growth, and Oxfam has dubbed it a twin crisis of health and economy. Millions more will be pushed into extreme poverty and will lack access to public services. The UN estimates that in in 2020, 1 billion people in low to middle-income countries spent 10% of their entire household budget on healthcare.

Tragically, we can expect huge increases in unemploy-ment. The World Health Organisation has suggested that nearly 1.65 billion could lose their job or money-making activity, increasing the number of people on the most marginal incomes. The UN estimated that 71 million people would fall back into poverty in 2020. Those are extraordinary figures of which the Government are only too well aware.

Despite all those challenges, however, global foreign aid is set to decline for the first time in many years, and tragically, the UK is one of the countries leading those cuts. It is not morally right, makes little economic sense, and stores up future costs for us through the impact on global growth, tackling poverty and inequality, and of course, future instability. The UN estimated that 132 million more people could fall victim to chronic food insecurity in 2020. I was struck by the answer a Minister gave me the other day, pointing out that people are already in famine in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, and that millions more are at risk. They know that, yet they are cutting aid and support for the programmes at the very time that people are in famine.

Look at the situation in Yemen. The International Rescue Committee has shown that the cost of a food basket has gone up by 35% in the last year in a country that we know has been devastated by war and humanitarian disaster. Human rights have been threatened in so many places around the world. Hunger has forced parents to send children to work or beg. Women and girls have had to resort to selling their bodies for sex simply to eat. World Vision says that 8 million children have been forced into child labour or begging. An estimated 31 million cases of gender-based violence were predicted in 2020 because of covid-19.

Those are shocking statistics for this House to hear as we make crucial decisions about our future aid spending and development policies. Lastly, UNICEF suggests that 9.7 million students could drop out of school because of the effects of covid-19, despite all the fantastic progress—for which there has been cross-party support in this House for many years—made through initiatives such as “Education for All”.

I will return to some of the positive examples of how faith-based organisations and Churches are helping, as exemplified by some of the many examples that the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. There are far too many organisations to list, but I will name a few. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is estimated that 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group, so faith and religious institutions are crucial in shaping people’s behaviour, in identifying at-risk groups, and in supporting people with services in communities. Many communities rely on religious communities to access knowledge and advice—for example, on issues related to health—because they see those institutions as trustworthy. We have seen where that has gone wrong in the past, but we have also seen where those institutions have played an absolutely critical role in the pandemic by providing advice.

The Catholic Church and its charitable organisations, such as CAFOD and SCIAF, have done work on education, sustainability, disaster relief, peacebuilding, good governance building, fighting misinformation, and working with indigenous people, using the trusted voice of the Church, which people see as a source of advice and support in these critical times. They have been working in some of the most volatile and fragile countries, such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. CAFOD has helped to provide food parcels to 30,000 people in rural Guatemala who face food shortages because of the pandemic.

As cases of coronavirus increased in Ethiopia—a country that will later be debated in the main Chamber in the light of the terrible humanitarian situation in Tigray—Catholic hospitals and health centres used their reach to provide hygiene materials and raise awareness among rural populations of how to protect themselves against covid, and have made cash transfers to some of the most at-risk populations in Tigray, who have suffered gravely and now face potential famine. CAFOD Ethiopia was able to raise funds and repurpose existing programmes to reach 1.4 million people through early-stage interventions.

We must not forget that some of these organisations have decades of experience, links and community partnerships, which will be at risk if they are unable to access the funding and support that they need. They will not only cut their programmes in the short term, but we will lose that expertise, those connections and the impact that they can have—often in prevention, in advance of future crises.

The Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate—an organisation linked to the Catholic Church—did work in South Sudan around covid-19, providing advice on the radio and delivering hygiene projects. I mentioned World Vision, which I used to work for. It works in 100 countries and is now the largest Christian non-governmental organisation in the world. It has put huge effort into fighting covid-19, and has pledged $350 million towards emergency response for 72 million people. Seventy countries have benefited from its support and work on food security and livelihoods, or its work with children and on strengthening health systems and preventive measures. In particular, it is renowned for its work with vulnerable children.

Christian Aid has been working in conflict-affected areas in the Sudan with those who face sexually-based gender violence. As I said, many of those challenges have increased during the pandemic, so that is crucial work. Will those projects be under threat because of the cuts that are coming?

The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the fact that 39% of international charities that receive funding from the Government said that cuts have already affected them seriously or very seriously, and 42% have received very serious or serious hits to their funding. It is quite extraordinary, given the growing threats in regions such as the Sahel, that we heard in the media the other week that the Government will reduce overseas development aid in the Sahel region by 90%. That is extraordinary, given that the region has been hit by covid-19, desertification, climate change, potential famine, and the multiple conflicts that affect people in that region. At the same time, we have British troops stationed in the Sahel, working alongside the French and the United Nations, trying to build stability. It is perverse to be cutting support for our development and humanitarian response while we are responding to the consequences of some of that. Our brave troops are putting themselves on the line to protect civilians, and are working alongside the United Nations and others. The Government seem to be doing two completely contradictory things—one with one hand and one with the other.

As I mentioned, the Government are proposing to cut aid to Yemen from £164 million last year to £87 million this year. They are also proposing to cut aid to Syria, Nigeria and other countries facing conflict and instability, which have been worsened by covid, including Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and other places. It is an absolutely absurd decision to be making at this time.

The situation in Ethiopia could not be starker. Millions are facing famine, and huge areas are without humanitarian access. There were significant reports of horrendous sexual violence in the media over the weekend. This is exactly the wrong time for us to be cutting back and retreating from some of these crises, which have been exacerbated by covid.

I want to end with some questions to the Minister. He knows that the covid-19 pandemic has had a staggering impact well beyond health, so why cut at this time? Why are the Government going to do that? We have heard about the potential impact on Voluntary Service Overseas —one of our national treasures, which enjoys cross-party support. It ensures human-to-human contact and does work in communities around the world. It is under threat, like the other organisations that we have heard about.

There are deeply disturbing reports today from William Worley on the Devex website that the FCDO is allegedly gagging NGOs from speaking out, even as their budgets are slashed. There are some quite extraordinary reports. They are anonymous, because many of these organisations are frightened to speak out. One NGO executive said:

“FCDO said we should not engage with the press as it could affect fund allocations!...But obviously the more outrageous and sinister the more senior it was, and the more organised and deliberate.”

Another executive from one of the NGOs said that FCDO officials were not being communicative, and

“we haven’t been able to get much out of people because” the FCDO

“are closing down all communications with everyone because of the cuts.”

Report after report after report is coming out about the way the Department is handling things. The very least it could do is be transparent and open and engage with some of these organisations, which are on the frontline and are responding to the covid pandemic and these threats with the moral purpose that I think is at the heart of being British, and for which we have had cross-party support for decades, particularly when tragedies such as covid and other diseases have hit.

Will the Minister commit to publishing urgently the scale of cuts to NGOs and, specifically, faith-based organisations? What role does he see for them in responding to the primary and secondary impact of the crisis? How can it be justified to make these cuts when his Department is also admitting that famine is occurring in some of these countries, not just that they are at risk?

The Minister is a good person and I know he will have to toe his FCDO line, but he knows that this measure is not supported on his own side. He knows the cross-party concern that there is. He knows the many members of his own party who have spoken out powerfully in recent weeks. Former Ministers and people from all different political persuasions within his party, some of whom I disagree with on many issues, have spoken passionately and powerfully on this one. It is breaking our promises to do our fair share. It breaches the cross-party consensus in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015.

The Government need to rethink. We are heading into that crucial G7 summit, where health is key on the agenda. We have the COP summit coming up, where climate change and its impact are so crucial. We are handing over the chair of the Commonwealth to a Commonwealth member we enjoy a close partnership with, Rwanda, later this year. This is an extraordinary backdrop to be heading into those crucial international moments, when the threats are so large, when the impact from covid-19 is so great, when other threats to people around the world are so intense and when we would be letting down those very Churches, faith-based organisations and NGOs that have been at the heart of a moral, humanitarian, human rights-based British response over so many decades. I urge the Government to think again.