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‘People are going hungry because we’re not signing cheques,’ in Syria, Raab told

Ashley Cowburn
·4 min read
 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

People “are going hungry” in Syria because cheques have not been signed off by ministers for a leading aid organisation, the chair of the Commons international development committee has alleged.

The claim from the Sarah Champion, who said she had spoken with major non-governmental organisations (NGOs), came as MPs grilled foreign secretary Dominic Raab on the multi-billion pound cuts to overseas aid.

Speaking on Wednesday, the Labour MP said that in the war-ravaged country an organisation, which she did not name, had struggled to get payments “because ministers haven’t signed it off” on 1 April — 22 days ago.

“So the reality is while its fabulous and I am incredibly grateful and incredibly proud of this country’s history and current status of providing for development, at the moment people are going hungry because we are not signing off cheques,” she said.

However, the foreign secretary dismissed the claim, telling the MP: “I don’t accept that. I don’t accept your headline view that we are not maintaining our proud legacy and tradition of being generous by global standards and no one is going hungry because we haven’t signed cheques. That’s just not true.”

“Of course as everyone would expect, both from the view of taxpayers’ oversight and taxpayers’ money, but also to maximise the impact we have to have a proper process. We’re going through it as fast as we can”.

Ms Champion went on saying she had heard the account “firsthand from country directors and some of the big NGO’s and I don’t think they have any basis for making that up”.

“What I do think is they are very scared at the moment because they believe if they put this information into the public domain then their situation with FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] might get worse, and I think that’s an awful, awful relationship that we’re in at the moment,” she added.

Mr Raab replied: “You can give me anonymous sources that you’ve got, given your wide network, and I appreciate the people you talk to and I know how seriously you take it. Our relationship overall with the NGO community is put under some pressure by the savings we’ve got to make, but frankly we’ve got an excellent relationship.”

During the two-hour committee session, the foreign secretary also hinted a country by country breakdown of aid spending, including where the cuts will occur, may not be published by the government until 2022.

It comes after the FCDO was accused of “hiding” the full scale of cuts after provoking a furious reaction from MPs for a statement published on Wednesday that only listed “thematic” and regional spending — rather than saying exactly where the axe will fall.

Billions are expected to be cut in the coming year due to the government’s decision to slash aid spending from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income — breaking a Conservative manifesto pledge. Ministers have insisted the measure is only “temporary” while the economy suffers from the fallout of the pandemic.

Pressed on the statement published on Wednesday, the foreign secretary rejected accusations of “sneaking out” the cuts, suggesting that his department “wouldn’t normally set out thematic allocations at this early stage in the financial year”.

“In fact, I think it’s almost unprecedented,” he said. “So, what I have tried to do is set out the raw data, broken down by allocation.

“We haven’t done this in anything other than a fully transparent way, given it to the committee, and indeed members of the House, the day before, precisely so that you can grill me for the two hours you have got me here today.

“The normal process, just to be clear, is for country allocations to be published by the statistics for international development, and that process doesn’t take place until 2022.”

Mr Raab said that his department was releasing “as much as we have at this point” and that the normal process, through DevTracker and supplementary estimates, “comes much, much later”.

He added: “We are certainly embracing that transparency and I would hope that coming to your committee and releasing as much as we have at this point via written ministerial statement the day before demonstrates that goodwill.”

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