The World Bank president, Jim Kim, said UK aid had played a key role in efforts to reduce poverty. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The president of the World Bank has told Theresa May that cutting the UK’s aid budget could lead to an increase in conflict, terrorism and migration and would damage Britain’s international reputation.
In a strongly worded response to reports that the government was considering dropping its commitment to devote 0.7% of national income to aid each year, Jim Yong Kim said the money the UK provided was vital not just for developing countries but for the future of the world.
His comments came after Bill Gates told the Guardian that lives would be lost in Africa if the government dropped the commitment because plans to eradicate malaria would be jeopardised. Like Kim, the Microsoft founder also stressed that the UK would lose influence.
At £13.3bn in 2016, Britain’s aid budget was the third biggest in the world after Germany and US. Of the G7, only Britain and Germany currently meet the UN’s 0.7% target for aid, and Britain is also one of the biggest donors to the World Bank.
Kim said the UK’s Department for International Development had played a vital role in efforts to rid the world of poverty. “We were extremely encouraged when prime minister David Cameron fulfilled the commitment to 0.7%,” Kim said at a press conference to mark the opening of the spring meetings of the Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“It is important for people in the UK to understand just how significant that was in expanding the UK’s influence in the world. It would be very unfortunate for the UK to reduce its efforts. I would say the 0.7% that has been committed to is critically, critically important, not just for developing countries but for the future of the world.”
The 0.7% pledge was originally made by Labour but it was only achieved after Cameron became prime minister in 2010.
May is under pressure from the Tory right, Ukip and Conservative-supporting papers to cut aid spending. She pointedly refused this week to say she would keep to the commitment in the event of winning the forthcoming general election, prompting strong speculation that it will be abandoned.
Kim said Britain’s aid money had never been more important, joining a chorus of voices opposing the idea of reneging on the 0.7% pledge.
Romilly Greenhill, a senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, said it allowed Britain to punch above its weight on the international stage.
“Bill Gates is right to say Britain’s aid contribution is saving lives and putting children in school,” he said. “The first message is that it is needed, the second is that it is effective, and the third is that, in terms of a global Britain, it is very significant.
“I’ve observed a lot of UN negotiations and developing countries and richer countries see it as a real indicator of Britain’s place on the international stage. It buys Britain a lot of kudos. Particularly when we leave the EU, it will demonstrate that we are punching above our weight.”
Tamsyn Barton, the chief executive of Bond, the UK membership body for development groups, said: “It would be a travesty if the UK’s 0.7% commitment, made to help the world’s poorest people, was not committed to by all political parties. This is not the time to shirk our global responsibility or step back from the world.”
Charlie Matthews, ActionAid’s head of advocacy, said: “A truly global Britain must be outward looking. UK aid and the commitment to 0.7% is helping to feed millions of hungry people in east Africa whose lives have been devastated by drought. Aid saves lives and helps the world’s poorest people, especially women and girls.”
Jeff Crisp, a research associate at the Refugees Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, said dropping the aid pledge was not inevitable, but would be one way for May to appease the Tory right before difficult Brexit negotiations.
“She will have to appease the right wing of her own party. One of the ways will be to get rid of it or to reduce it. Another way she could appease the right wing of the party would be to increase the way the overseas development budget will be used for things that are not strictly development.”
Kim said: “We’re meeting at a time when we face overlapping crises, both natural and man made, all which add urgency to our mission: conflict; climate shocks; the worst refugee crisis since the second world war; and famine in parts of East Africa and Yemen, which the UN has called the worst in 70 years. With the famine in particular, the world was caught unprepared.”
Kim said the multiple crises were linked to rising aspirations prompted by greater internet access. Aspiration matched by opportunity could create dynamic societies, he added.
“But if those rising aspirations meet frustration we are very worried about more and more countries going down the path to fragility, conflict, violence, extremism and, of course, eventually migration. Because the other thing that access to the internet does is it increases people’s desire to migrate.”
Kim said there was a need to create successful developing countries that would buy goods from the developed west and so ensure that rising aspirations were not met with frustration.
“This is not something that’s theoretical. It’s happening in front of our eyes. People have to think of aid as more than just giveaways.”