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As the UK’s ‘lethal aid’ increases, its humanitarian funding takes a hit – and why this matters

Since President Putin escalated Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February, foreign governments mobilizing in response to the war have increasingly made pledges of ‘lethal aid’. The term describes a bilateral ‘aid’ arrangement whereby military equipment, or the financial means to acquire ordnance, is transferred from one country to another. It might otherwise be referred to as military or defense support. Contrary to the traditional conception of aid: resources shared, often in the aftermath of disaster, to redress suffering and prevent loss of life, lethal aid facilitates further conflict between opposition forces.

On the 27 April, 2022, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called for increased defence spending, saying that Britain and other Western powers should provide warplanes to Ukraine. Ms Truss argued that the West “must be prepared for the long haul and double down on our support” for the country and that “the fate of Ukraine remains in the balance” and that the West “cannot be complacent”.

“If Putin succeeds there will be untold further misery across Europe and terrible consequences across the globe. We would never feel safe again,” she was quoted stating. “Heavy weapons, tanks, aeroplanes – digging deep into our inventories, ramping up production. We need to do all of this.”

This was not all. At the end of March 2022, UK Defense Secretary, Ben Wallace MP, hosted some 35 international partners at a second donor conference, with the aim of securing an inflated package of support for the Ukrainian Army.

“We are increasing our coordination to step-up that military support and ensure the Armed Forces of Ukraine grow stronger as they continue to repel Russian forces”, Wallace said.

The UK’s fresh contribution of ‘lethal aid’ to Ukraine– worth £100 million, includes eight hundred more NLAW anti-tank missiles, further Javelin anti-tank systems, additional Starstreak air defense systems and loitering munitions. This is in addition to £350 million worth of military supplies the UK has already delivered, and totals greater than the £400 million provided to reinforce infrastructural and humanitarian endeavors in Ukraine.

While Boris Johnson’s government has been open about its provision of munitions and other military hardware to Ukraine, it does so whilst also retreating from the UK’s longstanding commitment to distribute developmental assistance to the world’s most vulnerable regions.

In November 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the national budget for Official Development Assistance (ODA) would be cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI), equating to a diminishment of between £4 billion and £5 billion, depending on the size of the economy. Such a cut reneged on the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act of 2015, which mandated that ODA spending equate to 0.7% of GNI.

Economic damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic was cited as justification for the unprecedented measure. Nevertheless, in March of 2022 the National Audit Office criticized the policy’s lack of transparency and consultation, and for failing to adequately assess the long-term impact on development outcomes.

With their financial lifelines having been choked, or altogether eradicated, numerous charities and NGOs have become casualties of the ODA rollback, imperiling essential development projects and the communities they support. UK relief pledged to Yemen – a region gripped by some of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises – for instance, is down significantly from 2020, from £139.1 million to £87.2 million.

In Pakistan, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the cuts will have an impact on education, and nearly 11,000 girls in rural Pakistan may not attend school if the funding stops.

It has also been reported that eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian aid to Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugees say UK funding of £321m has been cut by 42%.

These cuts come on top of a wider contraction of global aid. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) reported that its projects in Syria have been drastically curtailed, as their funding was down 75% compared with the previous year.

Analysts at peacebuilding charity, Saferworld reported that specialist conflict-prevention initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa, led by the UK’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, will also lose some £90 million.

UK aid provision for landmine clearance has also been reduced by 80% over a three-year cycle, from £125 million to £25 million.

As aid is cut, defence grows. Spending on international development is being dramatically pared back: in November 2020, the Prime Minister unveiled a new defense plan that promised a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending over four years. That is in addition to the regular defence budget, which is around 2% of GDP.

Furthermore, the Defense Equipment Plan (2021-2031) states that the department intends to spend £238 billion on military equipment over the next decade, an addition of £48 billion on the previous year. The strategy places significant emphasis on the modernization, digitalization and automation of arms, in a drive to make hi-tech, drone-controlled war machines the back-bone of the UK’s armed forces.

The Prime Minister stated that the increase in spending would equip the military to be ‘all the more useful, all the more, I’m afraid, lethal, and effective around the world’. In short: fewer soldiers, increased technology and enhanced lethality.

Defence appears, then, to be benefiting whilst aid suffers, and this might be a pattern for the future. It was claimed that the reduction in ODA was temporary, however, according to the Chancellor’s criteria for reinstating the target of 0.7%, public finances are not forecast to have sufficiently recovered until at least 2024/5 for the reduction to be reversed.

At the same time, significant spending on military hardware and ammunition is becoming an entrenched priority in the government’s short and long-term agenda.

Alongside his announcement on increased Defense spending, the Prime Minister Tweeted that ‘the defense of the realm is the first duty of the government’- reiterating the drive to greenlight the purchase and distribution of lethal equipment in pursuit of peace. His government has also increasingly declined to support organizations leading poverty-eradication, infrastructure, peacebuilding and education programs that help secure regional stability, and can prevent armed conflicts arising in the future.

The ‘unprecedented’ shocks levied first by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have seen governments around the world making radical adjustments to policy and practice. However, the criteria used to determine exactly what kinds of suffering qualify for investment and intervention from the UK are murky. As more public money is poured into arms and surveillance commitments, the resources made available to support vulnerable communities, and attend to the long-term impacts of previous or ongoing conflicts are becoming increasingly scarce.