The UK government is being urged to spend more aid money on basic health services in the world’s poorest countries as charities fear that vital goals such as reducing child and maternal mortality are being neglected because of Covid-19.
A report by Action for Global Health, a coalition of charities including Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid, highlights how spending on global health as a proportion of the aid budget has fallen in recent years, with the amount going directly basic health services dropping by half since 2013.
It also warns that health is no longer one of the priority areas for the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
In a letter announcing nearly £3 billion of funding cuts to the development budget in July, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the newly merged department would focus on poverty reduction, climate change, girls’ education, Covid-19 and media and religious freedom.
Missing from that list was a commitment to ending preventable deaths, a priority highlighted in the Conservative party manifesto and championed last year by Alok Sharma when he was international development secretary.
Katie Husselby, author of the Action for Global Health report, said that the UK had a strong record in areas such as reducing child and maternal mortality and fighting the three big infectious disease killers HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
“The cuts to the development budget have still not been specified but we have to make the assumption that areas that were not listed [in the letter] may be at risk,” she said.
She added that the focus on Covid may mean that other areas get missed out.
“The fear is that Covid has come to represent global health to the UK government. But that doesn’t take into account the huge indirect impact Covid will have on areas such as maternal and child health, malaria, TB and HIV. Focusing solely on the Covid response will risk a huge reversal of progress in all these other health areas,” she said.
In 2013 20 per cent of the aid budget went on health – that dropped dramatically and has started to climb again to about 15 per cent in 2018 when the total budget was about £14bn.
But the report highlights how funding on basic health services has fallen – from a high of around £230m in 2013 to less than £150m in 2018. By contrast spending on medical research has skyrocketed from around £100m in 2016 to £350m in 2018. But the report points out that the majority of this money goes towards UK universities, rather than those in developing countries.
The report highlights the UK’s strong track record – it is the second largest government donor to global health and is a leader in areas such as sexual and reproductive health and tackling antimicrobial resistance.
Earlier this year it hosted the global vaccine summit where it pledged £1.65 billion to provide vaccines to some of the world’s poorest countries.
And last year, in one of her last acts as prime minister, Theresa May pledged £1.4bn to the Global Fund to fight HIV, TB and Malaria – making the UK the second largest government donor after the United States.
However, the report also highlights how the UK has had no global health strategy since 2013 and it warns that funding on health systems strengthening is minimal.
Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, welcomed the report. He said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has left many children and their families without access to vital health and nutrition services – and the UK now has a critical part to play in making sure everyone gets the care they need, wherever they’re born.”
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