Boris Johnson’s hypocrisy over his new global education pledge is galling

Editorial: Helping children, with an emphasis on girls, get the education they deserve is important – but the plans would carry more conviction if the UK’s international aid budget wasn’t being cut at the same time

Friday 11 June 2021 21:30 BST
(Dave Brown)

Even by his own extravagant standards of chutzpah, Boris Johnson placing himself at the head of a campaign to help educate every child in the world is a cheeky move.

He has used the G7 summit pretty shamelessly to claim credit for a perfectly laudable international effort to direct billions of dollars into post-pandemic educational recovery, with especial emphasis on school places for girls in poorer nations. Never one of life’s feminists, Mr Johnson’s extravagant-sounding plans might carry more conviction were he not simultaneously slashing the overseas aid budget by billions a year and, in the latest round of funding, allocating about £50 per child (in England) for the catch-up in teaching required after a year of unprecedented disruption.

Mr Johnson’s announcement sets out the present acute challenge very well. The Covid-19 pandemic has indeed caused an unprecedented global education crisis, with 1.6 billion children around the world out of school at its peak. Girls have been hardest hit as the pandemic compounded the obstacles to education they already face, including poverty, gender-based violence and child marriage. All true, and, in fact also true, albeit to a lesser degree, for many decades.

The old Department for International Development had built up huge expertise and authority in the field, and was doing invaluable work before its budget and staff were gulped into the maw of the Foreign Office. It was an act of vandalism, pure and simple. Now, however, it is as if nothing had happened and the prime minister pledges some £430m of “new” UK aid to open up opportunities for children in dozens of countries.


When such large sums of “new” money from a radically reduced aid budget are conjured up, one may reasonably suppose there is some trickery at work, and the independent aid charities certainly dispute whether the UK contribution lives up to its billing. World Vision said that this would still leave funding below its 2019 level and would not be enough “to address the significant barriers which exist to prevent girls from accessing education”.

The truth is that Mr Johnson enjoys his role at these gatherings, but the reality is different. The British are retreating from their leadership role in global development, one of the few areas where Britain has still be been able to punch above its weight.

The G7 states have lost trillions of dollars in output as a consequence of the pandemic, on top of vast clinical resources directed towards the relief, prevention and treatment of Covid patients that might have otherwise been available for other areas. Yet they are still, broadly, the largest democratic economic powers on the planet, and number among them some of the most prosperous populations.

Bad as things are in the west, it is always as well to keep some sense of perspective and reflect on those trying to survive – and their children to gain any kind of learning – in the refugee camps of Myanmar and Bangladesh, in Syria and Afghanistan. For as long as there are children growing up without the opportunities in education we take for granted, we have failed. It takes more than a complacent G7 communique to meet such challenges.

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