The UK’s Fork in the Road moment
Circumstances appear to have conspired to place the United Kingdom (UK) in limbo on many fronts. Like the rest of the world, it is dealing with the global novel coronavirus (COVID-19) public health pandemic, which at the time of writing had already infected over 1.6 million and killed close to 60,000 Brits. The UK is also facing perhaps its worse economic recession in nearly three centuries and growing uncertainty over securing a trade deal with the European Union (EU) to ensure an orderly post-Brexit transition.
Notwithstanding its current challenges, the UK remains firmly in pursuit of a more “Global Britain”, a notion which is meant to communicate to the world that it will continue to exercise international leadership across many issue areas. In what some observers have described as a down payment towards this ambition, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently pledged £16.5 billion ($22 billion) for increased defense spending over the next few years. As a further sign of its global leadership credentials, the UK is also set to chair the United Nations (UN) Security Council from February 2021, it will hold the rotating presidency of the Group of 7 (G7) countries from January 2021, and it will also host the UN-led 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change in November 2021.
Nonetheless, the triple threats of COVID-19, an economic recession and post-Brexit uncertainty suggest that a more “Global Britain” is not inevitable. Mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, a protracted recession, or a messy divorce from the EU, all have the potential to undermine the UK’s stated ambition of continued global leadership.
The tough times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession have already resulted in a cut in the UK’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget heading into 2021. In 2015, the UK enshrined in law its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its gross national income (GNI) on aid every year, making it the first G7 country to meet the UN’s 45-year-old aid spending target. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, recently announced that the UK was cutting the overseas aid budget by a third. In dollar figures, this represents a cut of around £5 billion compared to the 2019 budget.
The cut in the UK’s ODA budget could not have come at a worse time. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank has stated that 150 million people around the world are at risk of extreme poverty. In April 2020, the UN’s food agency warned of famines of “biblical proportions” in 2021 without billions in aid. Several UK members of parliament described the slash in funding to overseas aid as “unprincipled, unjustified and harmful” at a time when the global health crisis is reversing decades of progress on poverty, healthcare and education.
The immediate implications of the UK’s aid cut for the Caribbean are not immediately clear. However, the region is not likely to be spared. Even prior to the global aid cuts, budgeted UK aid to the Caribbean was already on the decline, dropping by around 60 percent for the period 2019/2020 compared to 2018/2019. Further cuts may affect UK support to the Caribbean in areas such as economic development, governance and security, human development and climate change and the environment where the bulk of ODA has gone in recent years.
Given the unprecedented situation that the UK finds itself in, having to navigate a global health pandemic, an economic recession and life outside of the EU, all simultaneously, one can understand that tough choices are needed. One such choice was cutting ODA and I can only imagine how difficult a decision this was, especially at a time when the world needs more social capital, not less. Other tough choices are also ahead and its decisions will ultimately determine which side of the fork in the road the UK will traverse. Will the UK emerge as a country which is more global, or as a diminished power? Its choices will let us know.
Finally, developments in the UK matter to the Caribbean region since the UK remains an important trading partner, it is a critical source market for tourism and in London, it houses the world’s second largest financial centre. Therefore, decisions in the UK are not without consequences for the Caribbean region. It is against this backdrop that one would hope that an even more global and engaged UK emerges from the current challenges.