Donald Trump’s planned cuts to United Nations funding would have a “marked effect” on health and aid programmes for women refugees and the world’s poorest people, Britain’s aid minister has warned.
Alistair Burt, Minister for International Development and the Middle East, said he hoped that the White House would resolve its “issues” with the UN because any loss of cash will have a major impact.
In an exclusive interview with HuffPost UK to mark its Christmas appeal for Syria, Burt suggested Britain was working to prevent any “adverse” consequences of American funding cuts to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other agencies. Trump plans to slash up to 40% of US voluntary contributions to the UN, a move which would directly affect the children’s agency Unicef.
He has vowed to axe all support for UNFPA, claiming the UN supports “coercive abortion” across the world.
The UN vehemently denies the claims, but one of the US President’s first acts in office was to broaden the ‘global gag rule’ that withholds American cash from any overseas organisation engaged in programmes that could relate to abortion.
UNFPA is the world’s largest provider of contraceptives, delivering reproductive health services to 12.5 million women. Campaigners warn scores of projects are under threat, with people fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen particularly at risk.
Burt, who also made a strong defence of the UK’s policy of spending 0.7% of its GDP on overseas aid, said that he shared America’s plans for wider UN reform, but stressed its continued support was of “huge importance”.
Asked if his message to Washington was that it should not cut UN funding because of a knock-on effect on agencies like Unicef, he replied that he was aware the relationship between the UN and the US “has been a fraught one”.
“Certainly it’s not for the United Kingdom to tell the US what to do. I am cautious about going there. We have certainly supported concerns about reforming the UN and we are working very closely with the new [UN] Secretary General Guterres to make sure that the UN process is working effectively and fairly.
“We’ve had issues when we have though there is a focus by some elements of the UN on areas where they have picked out one country rather than another. These things are not unreasonable criticisms.
“But it’s true that any loss of funding, particularly in health or education, has a marked effect. We are very conscious of some concerns in the American administration about health funding.
“Concerns which we don’t share and where we are very determined to make sure there is no adverse effect if funding is cut by the United States on some of the programmes, particularly to women and those in need as a result.
“But we hope the United States can resolve their issues with the UN, because the US presence is of huge importance to us all.”
This Christmas, HuffPost UK has teamed up with Unicef to appeal for donations to help children affected by the war in Syria.
Burt, who has personally visited Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, said that he was proud that Britain had provided £259m to Unicef inside and outside the country.
“That funding will continue year on year, depending on what the needs are. All the agencies are stretched and they all make appeals and most of the appeals fall short. The UN regularly reports 30%, 50% of an appeal has been successful. The UK will continue to support Unicef.”
The minister made a strong defence of the 0.7% aid pledge, pointing out that despite some newspaper campaigns against the policy, “it didn’t really emerge as an election issue” in June’s general election.
The UK spent £13bn on international development last year, a seventh of the total global spending by all countries, prompting the Daily Express to run a petition urging Theresa May to spend the cash instead on the NHS and elderly in Britain.
Burt said that rather than dismissing the campaign as “hard hearted”, “the sensible thing to do is to take it seriously”.
“That means we have to justify everything that we are spending, we have to making sure it’s being spent on the right things, and once money is committed we make sure that it’s used properly, does its job and of course there’s no corruption, wastage.
“I think people do want to make sure it is well spent, quite rightly so, providing we make clear it’s not one or the other. We are not funding overseas aid at the expense of the NHS or anything else.
“Secondly, explain to people why it matters. Very few people in the UK I think would begrudge any aid going to those who were displaced as a result of conflict. I would like to think not many people would query that sort of thing. What they are concerned about is the longer term process and a modern awareness that development is no longer about feeding the most hungry and educating those who have never been educated.
“The final part of the argument with newspapers and those is to say: dealing with the immediate crisis is important, [but] making sure that countries can develop, countering migration and extremes of radicalisation, all in all this is good for us.
“If you want to say charity begins at home that’s true, but home is no longer defined as it used to be. Our borders are no longer where they were, the things we have to deal with are sometimes further away than people think because nowhere is 24 hours away from Heathrow.”
Burt said that with emergency help needed in Yemen, the Rohingya crisis in Burma, as well as Syria, “compassion fatigue” was “real”.
“There’s a sense that people are overwhelmed and that wherever they turn they feel ‘what more can we do’?
“We are conscious of it because of course if charitable support or the UN isn’t supported effectively then of course people look to us.
“We [the government] don’t suffer from compassion fatigue. The media changes its focus, we don’t. So we counter that by being incredibly professional across Government, across DfID and across the FCO. We have just got a lot of dedicated people who work incredibly hard in these areas.
“It’s important for us to combine with those who are getting messages out there to say as in Syria’s case, just because it’s been going on for six years doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. Don’t think it’s alright, or somebody else is coming along to sort it. It’s still a responsibility for all of us.”
Alistair Burt’s full interview to HuffPost UK will be published on Thursday December 28th.
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