Boris Johnson was accused of hypocrisy after announcing at the G7 leaders’ summit he would provide £430m of extra UK funding for girls’ education in 90 developing countries – only weeks after his government made “inexcusable cuts” of more than £200m to funding set aside for the same cause this year.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced in April that he was providing only £400m from the main UK aid budget for girls’ education in 2021, down from £600m in 2019. Johnson has dismissed stories of aid cuts, and their consequences, as “lefty propaganda”, but refused to hold a Commons vote on the issue.
The extra £430m over five years announced on Friday is part of a regular earmarked British contribution to the multilateral Global Partnership for Education (GPE). The UK is hosting a summit for the fund alongside Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, in London in July.
The summit aims to raise £5bn over the next five years, and aid experts said they had hoped the UK would then contribute £600m at the summit. The smaller sum, announced by Johnson at the first session of the G7 summit in Cornwall, represents 12% of the requested funds for GPE. Agencies pointed out that since 2006 the UK on average had provided 19% of the total funding to GPE.
Although the agencies welcomed the UK’s contribution, they said they feared Johnson’s efforts to persuade other countries to step up to the plate on this, and other development issues, had been hobbled by his failure to lead by example by instead cutting the overall aid budget by as much as £4bn in 2021.
Announcing the cash, Johnson said: “It is a source of international shame that every day around the world children bursting with potential are denied the chance to become titans of industry, scientific pioneers or leaders in any field, purely because they are female, their parents’ income or the place they were born.
“I am calling on other world leaders, including those here at the G7, to also donate and put us firmly on a path to get more girls into the classroom, address the terrible setback to global education caused by coronavirus and help the world build back better.”
Laurie Lee, the chief executive of Care International UK, said: “The prime minister was right when he said that it is a ‘moral outrage’ – and a grave impediment to economic growth – that millions of girls around the world are denied an education. Care has a successful history of delivering life-changing girls’ education, funded by UK government, in places like Somalia, Yemen and Syria where girls’ education is the most transformational. It’s therefore inexcusable, as well as deeply saddening, that we are having to cut girls’ education programmes in 2021 because of harmful and unstrategic Foreign Office cuts.”
Lis Wallace, head of UK advocacy at One, said the £430m “falls short of what’s expected of the summit co-host, so it must be the preface of the story, not the conclusion.
“Announcing this while G7 leaders are in Cornwall is a sign the UK seeks to leverage its diplomatic influence to encourage others. Yet cuts to the aid budget for girls’ education of 25% are undermining these efforts and mean that calls for others to step up border on hypocrisy.”
As a result of government secrecy, and the relabelling of aid spending into new thematic categories, the precise level of the cuts to girls’ education is contentious.
Since the GPE was established in 2002 it has contributed to the largest expansion of primary and lower-secondary schooling in history, getting 160 million more children into school. In countries where GPE works, the number of girls enrolling in school has increased by 65%. Nearly one-third of girls who drop out of school do so because of pregnancy, another area in which the UK is cutting back.
The G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in May adopted the UK target of getting 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 in the next five years.
Italy and the European Commission have promised €25m and €700m respectively to GPE.