The UK must not abandon commitments to international aid during a global pandemic

This is the worst moment for the UK to turn its back on global child health, argues these authors

Many argue that women and children have been an afterthought throughout the covid-19 pandemic response, but the UK’s drastic cuts to international aid are perhaps the most brazen example. The numbers of maternal and child deaths that occur globally as a result of these cuts may even outweigh covid-19 deaths in the UK. The G7 conference this week will be a moment of national shame if these cuts to international aid are not reversed.    

Over 5 million children still die from preventable causes every year, and due to the collateral impact of the pandemic, the numbers of children dying from preventable causes is predicted to rise for the first time since the G7 was founded. In addition to increased child deaths, there is also likely to be a significant rise in morbidity arising from the collateral impact of the pandemic and the increase in poverty and other social determinants, much of which will be unaddressed due to disruption of health services and the re-direction of already limited resources. Children have long-standing and internationally agreed rights to be supported to live a healthy, fulfilling life. These cuts undermine and threaten the realisation of these rights for many children and will not only impact upon child survival, but also longer term development.

Now is the worst possible moment to cut the United Kingdom’s support for global child health programmes. The likely impact on children of the growing list of aid cuts is becoming clear. The UK government has slashed core funding to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) by 60%, which the organisation says will have “serious consequences” for children, particularly in humanitarian emergencies. Cuts of 85% to reproductive health funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have also been announced, abandoning commitments which could prevent 250,000 maternal and child deaths according to the organisation.

Cuts to food aid, while needs are increasing worldwide, are particularly worrying for children. At home, paediatricians have spoken out in support for extending free school meals for children in the UK. It is ironic that since the government heeded this call, and organisations such as UNICEF stepped in to feed children in the UK, the UK government has reportedly slashed international food aid by 80%, abandoning malnutrition programmes which keep hundreds of thousands of children alive. At this moment when 20 countries face the highest risk of famine in decades, such cuts to humanitarian aid have been described by the UN Secretary General as a death sentence.The fact that the UK is currently leading a Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Compact agreement as part of its G7 presidency while simultaneously removing so much support to food aid is unconscionable.   

Further cuts to UK aid are numerous, but include child health partnerships and training schemes, and reduced support for infectious diseases, with UK funding to UNAIDS being cut by more than 80% and funding for neglected tropical diseases almost wiped out. Even polio, a disease the UK could soon have been proud to have played a role in defeating, will see UK funding reduced by 95%, putting crucial eradication efforts at risk which have already been shaken by covid-19.

While the UK Government’s support for covid-19 interventions such as COVAX is welcome and should go further, cuts in funding of 80% for water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions, one of few aspects of the covid-19 response which could directly benefit children as well as reducing covid-19 transmission, are inexplicable. 

These cuts to essential aid and development programmes will contribute to the avoidable deaths of thousands of women and children. Abandoning the UK government’s legal and party manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid during a global pandemic is a grave mistake for which children will largely pay the price. It represents a huge step backwards in the fight to address global health inequity, an issue of common benefit to all nations, and will be a matter of national shame as the UK takes up the presidency of the G7 this week in Cornwall if the government does not change course. 

Srinivasa Bhargav Rambhatla, junior paediatric doctor in London. Twitter: @SBRambhatla

Neal Russell, paediatric clinical research fellow and paediatric advisor for MSF. Twitter: @NealJRussell

Mike Kalmus Eliasz, paediatric trainee and NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Global Child Health at the University of Liverpool. Twitter: @mike_eliasz 

Amaran Uthayakumar-Cumarasamy, junior doctor working in the Yorkshire & Humber Deanery.

Andrew Clarke, senior health advisor at Save the Children UK; paediatric nurse and specialist public health nurse; working across East and West Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Delan Devakumar, associate professor in Child and Adolescent health and co-director of the UCL Centre for the Health of Women, Children and Adolescents. Twitter: @DJDevakumar

We are all members of the International Child Health Group, a special interest group of the RCPCH, and all represent their own opinions rather than that of their organisations. Twitter: @IntChildHealth

Competing interests: none declared.