Bill Gates warned Theresa May that should the Conservatives go ahead and abandon the UK’s overseas aid spending pledge it would reduce the country’s influence in the world and mean more lives lost in Africa.
Speaking to the Guardian on the second day of the general election campaign, the billionaire philanthropist spelled out the potential consequences of dropping the existing target of spending 0.7% of GDP on aid, hours after the prime minster refused to recommit to the target.
Downing Street sources also refused to say whether the target would be included in the party’s election manifesto when questioned, while Labour joined forces with Gates to say that May wanted to cut the £12bn budget and abandon the UK’s commitment to the developing world.
Gates said: “The big aid givers now are the US, Britain and Germany – those are the three biggest and if those three back off, a lot of the ambitious things going on with malaria, agriculture and reproductive health simply would not get done.”
But the Microsoft founder said that the leadership role taken by the UK could determine whether ambitious efforts to eradicate malaria in Africa were launched.
He added: “Malaria has always been the disease we really want to take on and the UK has always in terms of research capacity and aid been a leader. In terms of where the aid ambition gets set, the UK can be a huge leader in driving that malaria eradication, or the world may have to back off and not get started on that.”
May first hinted at abandoning the aid funding pledge in an interview with the Sun, giving an evasive answer to the question of whether she will continue to back the 0.7% commitment in her manifesto. “You’ll have to wait, and read the manifesto when it comes, won’t you?” she said.
At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, she dodged the question again, telling a Labour MP that the UK is meeting its commitment on foreign aid now. Pressed again afterwards, a No 10 source repeated May’s refusal at prime minister’s questions to confirm that the current target of 0.7% of national income would continue after the election.
“We are meeting our commitments now,” the source said. “In terms of the future manifesto, that’s something which you’ll have to wait for the manifesto for.”
Gates’s intervention came on the first full day of the election campaign, in which:
- MPs voted overwhelmingly to endorse May’s decision to call the snap poll on 8 June by with 522 voting in favour and 13 against
- The prime minister traded blows with Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, in which she said the Labour leader “would bankrupt our economy, weaken our defences and is simply not fit to lead”
- Jeremy Corbyn hit back, saying that May was too afraid to face him in a TV debate. Later he ruled out any coalition deal with the Scottish National party
- SNP and Conservative leaders claimed their parties were the only credible contestants in the Scotland, in an overt attempt to squeeze Labour’s vote
The right of the Conservative party, Ukip and rightwing newspapers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail have long been calling for the £12bn budget to be cut, claiming it is inflexible and leads to aid being spent in the wrong places.
Kate Osamor, the shadow development secretary, said: “Bill Gates is right to point out that cutting the UK international development budget could cost lives. Theresa May must not step away from our commitment to foreign aid. She talks about a Global Britain but she seems keener to turn us into a Little England.”
In a speech at Chatham House, Osamor went on to launch an attack on the Conservative party’s whole approach to foreign aid, accusing May of wanting to cut it like George Osborne did to the welfare budget.
“The Tories and their friends in the rightwing press are doing to development aid what they did to welfare,” she said.“Development aid has become a punch bag for the conservative media and Brexiteer Tory MPs. The same people who campaigned to take us out of the EU now want us to exit out of our commitment to the developing world.”
The Gates Foundation has worked closely with the UK for more than five years focussing on eradicating tropical diseases that affect more than 1 billion people and has been one of the most persuasive advocates of the argument that aid works. Gates said the UK should be praised, not ridiculed, for its spending pledge.
British funding had made an absolute phenomenal difference, he said. “Through my travels I have been a personal witness to how much DFID had achieved. The UK should be very proud it has got up to this generous level, and it is having an incredible impact.”
Gates has been fighting a similar rearguard action to persuade Donald Trump not to scale back the US aid programme, and says he is trying to show the US president, relatively inexperienced in the field, the great good that aid can do. May’s predecessor David Cameron has already urged the prime minister not to cut the budget.
Aid groups have expressed concern that the Conservatives are already seeking to get round the 0.7 % pledge by siphoning off billions in aid cash into other funds such as the £1bn Conflict and Stability Fund, overseen by the National Security Council, rather than the Department of International Development. The Foreign Office, the business department and the ministry of defence have been making raids on the £12bn aid budget, arguing issues such as prosperity generation, trade promotion and security are all part of the aid budget.
Gates added it was natural for any government to wish to review its budgets, but asked May if the UK was abandoning its commitments to the world. He said: “It is a choice as the UK steps away from the EU, are you just getting away from the rule setting on migration and tariffs, or is it a statement about stepping away from the entire world, and being generous to others. So, will Mrs May recommit to the high impact the current level is providing?”
Aware of the growing number of British stories claiming aid was being misspent or wasted, Gates insisted personally as a businessman he had no time for the misuse of resources and said: “When aid is mismanaged it is a double crime – stealing both from the taxpayer and from the poor.” He urged the British public to be realistic. “It will never be possible to eliminate small-scale corruption or waste entirely, any more than we could eliminate waste from every government program – or from every business, for that matter.”
He urged the public to look at the trend lines and have confidence that aid works. “As recently as 1950, three quarters of the world was still living in extreme poverty. Today, that number is down to less than 10%. In 1990, one in 10 children died before age five, almost entirely of preventable causes. Today, that number is lower than one in 20. In the next fifteen years, it will be one in 40.”