We all share one planet, and so essentially we are all neighbours, yet the inequality between affluent nations and impoverished countries is stark.
From the 350,000+ people at risk of famine in Ethiopia's Tigray, for example, to people displaced by conflicts in regions such as Myanmar and Burkina Faso, it is estimated that this year, 235.4 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This equates to an astounding 1 in 33 people worldwide, a situation that can't be ignored. As the Amnesty International says: "Governments have a duty to help them, but most rich countries are still treating refugees as somebody else's problem."
Despite this, the UK government has cut aid by 42 percent leaving approximately 70,000 people without healthcare services and 10,000 without water in the world's largest refugee settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Add Covid-19 to the equation and you have a dire situation that is only worsening, as this virus does not respect borders. The refugees, many of them suffering from poor nutrition, are already more vulnerable to illness, and the virus has the potential to spread rapidly in such intensely cramped, squalid conditions. The persecution of innocent Rohingya Muslims perpetrated by the Myanmar military had shocked many around the world, and yet when it is not at the forefront of the news, these people and the abysmal conditions in which they live are forgotten.
Andrew Mitchell, former British secretary for international development, said that the foreign aid guarantee to spend 0.7 percent of national income was a small amount of money that had a "great" impact, and that cutting foreign aid is bad for Britain's reputation. The news of the UK's foreign aid cuts was not welcomed by other nations attending the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. Not only is the UK the only nation to have cut its commitment while other countries have increased their aid budgets, but politicians from all parties have also criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for this decision.
The "Statistics on International Development: Provisional UK AID Spend 2020" show that the UK spent 14.5bn pounds on overseas aid—a decrease of 712m pounds on 2019. However, the 2019 figure still met the 0.7 percent of gross national income target, whereas in 2021/22, the government plans to allocate just under 10bn pounds to aid.
Justifying the need to cut aid, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that it was an "extremely difficult" but necessary decision as a result of the cost of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, while Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins said that the cuts were a "small temporary reduction." The truth is, what may seem like a "small temporary reduction" could have a significant impact on those who rely on foreign aid.
The question of corrupt governments was raised by Ian Birrell, contributing editor at The Mail on Sunday, who argued that the UK aid budget should be cut as it is "propping up some of the worst governments in the world". The argument was that giving aid to a country with high levels of corruption is the same as giving aid to that country's government, yet the DFID says UK aid always works with trusted partners on the ground, not through the governments directly. A DFID spokesperson said: "UK aid only goes to trusted partners to help those living in extreme poverty, not directly to the governments of the most corrupt countries. DFID has strict measures in place to protect taxpayers' money including regular audits and fraud assessments."
The fact is that aid saves lives. It is not just about handing money over, but involves food aid and distribution; water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives; healthcare; agricultural training; climate resilience support; emergency response; economic development; environmental protection; infrastructure projects; vaccination programmes; and peace-building activities.
There is, then, the fundamental principle that humanity should not be separated by borders or stretches of water. The only way to live and survive is by co-existing alongside people of different faiths, religions, cultures and socio-economic circumstances. We should not view the underprivileged and persecuted as any different to the members of our own families. Everyone is someone's son or daughter, and everyone should have the right to enough food, water, shelter and healthcare.
Other people may quote the old saying that charity begins at home, but we do help people at home. We have a social security system, shelters for the homeless and a public healthcare system for everyone. And whilst this may not cure all problems, the situation here cannot be compared to that in other parts of the world.
Over the past year, the pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives—some for the better and some for the worse, but it has certainly made us less likely to take anything for granted.
The arrival of Covid-19 presented additional threats to refugees and the vulnerable, which impacted—but did not prevent—response efforts. The theme of last year's Refugee Day on June 20—Every Action Counts—promoted the message that we can all make a difference in creating a more inclusive and equal world. This year, the theme of "Together we heal, learn and shine" has even more significance as we reflect on the previous year of sacrifice, loss and appreciation of the smallest of blessings in our lives… a year that brought out people's altruistic side and united people in efforts to help others and look out for our neighbours. It made many aware of how fortunate we are compared to refugees and displaced people in other regions around the world.
Regardless of how much the UK government contributes, we can all do our bit by contributing to charity, volunteering, creating awareness campaigns and undertaking our own fundraising efforts. Above all, it is intrinsic in human nature to show empathy for our fellow humans in the knowledge that, one day, we or our families too could be in a situation where we rely on the generosity and compassion of others.
Shahida Rahman is a British-Bangladeshi writer.