After almost ten years of a brutal civil war, economic catastrophe, rising poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the fatal winter months – misery is compounded again and again in Syria, and the UK's decision to cut its aid budget will only add to the suffering of Syrians.
According to The Guardian, Syria is experiencing a 56 per cent drop in British aid this year – a year which has seen thousands killed and over a million displaced by the brutal fighting in Idlib. The entirety of Syria has been plunged into an unprecedented economic crash, and now COVID-19 is ravaging the nation, whose healthcare system has been decimated by the conflict. Today, the people of northern Syria need more help, not less.
An added tragedy is the popularity of this aid cut amongst the British public. Sixty-six per cent of the UK supports the cut, and only 18 per cent opposes it. But this is not an indication that the UK aid budget has been a failure or that it has been poorly executed. Far from it. It is an indication that no government has ever hailed the incredible successes of the UK aid budget, for fear of upsetting right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail, who have been out for blood since the Department for International Development (DFID) was founded in 1997. Self-confessed "long time sceptic of development aid" and centre-right economist, Sam Bowman, hailed the UK's aid spending as: "Amazingly transparent… The projects are reviewed independently. Seventy-nine per cent of reviewed spending was judged to be making a positive contribution, the remaining fifth to need improvements." The way the UK has spent its aid budget has been the gold standard of how taxpayers' money has been used.
The prime minister constantly talks of his desire for British institutions to be the "envy of the world" and "world beating". Within the DFID, he had just that. The DFID, amongst development and aid circles, was a world leader, allowing the UK to punch well above its weight and have influence far beyond its size and national wealth. However, this government has not only merged it into the Foreign Office – taking away its single principle of development for the sake of improving lives, in exchange for development for the sake of achieving foreign policy objectives – it has now also butchered its budget.
Between 2015 and 2019 alone, the UK aid budget provided humanitarian assistance to 32.6 million people and an education to 14.3 million children. It helped reduce police cases from 350,000 in 1988, to just 33 in 2018. Whilst the right-wing media told the British people that it was funding the "Ethiopian Spice Girls", it was actually funding medicine, food, education and clean water – saving lives and changing lives. This is a government that is taking its orders from a section of society who advocate that "we should look after our own first," weeks after it opposed providing the UK's poorest children with free meals during school holidays.
In Syria alone, The Right Honourable James Cleverly MP, the minister for the Middle East and North Africa, told a Westminster Hall debate in parliament earlier this month how the UK has spent £3.3 billion in aid since 2012. Providing 28 million food rations, 19 million medical consultations, 13 million vaccinations and is now committing to spending £33 million on tackling COVID-19 in an area where half the hospitals have been deliberately damaged and destroyed in order to achieve military objectives.
And he is right; the UK aid budget has done an enormous amount of good for the victims of the Syrian conflict. But now, the UK government is reportedly deciding to reduce the amount of good it does for Syrians by almost half. Of Syria Relief's projects alone, the UK's aid budget has indirectly provided funding for 33,189 students to attend 107 schools in northwest Syria, for 3,200 children in northeast Syria to be supplied with the resources to learn from home during the ongoing pandemic, it has helped source clean water for five schools and delivered funding for five healthcare facilities (four primary healthcare clinics and a hospital), and it isn't even a major recipient of UK aid money. The impact that this will have on the ground, on major projects for NGOs more dependent on UK funding, is huge. It is the most vulnerable Syrians who will bear the scars of these budget cuts.
The decision to balance the books on the backs of the world's poorest people marks the UK abandoning its main outlet for having a positive influence in the world. This government talks of the principles of a post-Brexit "Global Britain", however, in northwest Syria's hour of greatest need, we are instead seeing an insular Britain.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.