LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Church leaders in Britain and Ireland are calling on the UK government to keep its pledge to spend 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income on international aid and development.

In November, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would drop this commitment to 0.5 percent of GNI due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting billions from the international aid budget at a time when the poorest countries were dealing with the health and financial fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, wrote members of Parliament in November urging them to keep the commitment to 0.7 percent, which was enshrined in law in 2015.

“A clear measure of a nation’s greatness is the manner in which it responds to the needs of its poorest. The same is true for the response to poverty between nations. If we truly wish to be a great nation, then cutting the overseas aid budget is a retrograde step,” the cardinal wrote.

Now, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland is calling on people to contact their local MP to oppose the proposed cuts in Parliament.

“The decision to reduce the UK’s international development commitment requires a change in the law. Please contact your Member of Parliament to make the case for opposing the cut and protecting Britain’s international development commitment,” the organization said in a statement.

“With a calling to love our neighbors, a commitment to working for justice, and many global connections, for many decades Churches have championed international efforts around human development and global poverty reduction. The 0.7 percent target has its origins in an initiative of the World Council of Churches in 1958, before being adopted by the United Nations in 1970,” the statement said.

“In the UK, Churches and Christians have played a significant role in calling for Britain to support international development and fulfil its global responsibilities in relation to aid, trade, debt and climate, through campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History. Many of the major British international development agencies such as Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tearfund and World Vision have their roots in the churches,” it continued.

Save the Children estimates that a 30 percent cut in spending would mean 5.6 million fewer children a year will be immunized, and 105,000 lives a year will not be saved; 940,000 fewer children a year will be supported to gain a decent education; 2 million fewer people a year will be reached with humanitarian assistance; 3.8 million fewer people a year will be supported to gain access to clean water and/or better sanitation.

In their statement, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland noted the global pandemic is the “biggest humanitarian crisis in a generation, and has pushed an estimated 150 million people worldwide into extreme poverty.”

The organization said that the use of a percentage system means that the UK’s commitment is already flexible depending on economic circumstances.

“Aid programs were already going to be reduced because of the contraction of the UK economy. The international development budget is a relatively small proportion of government expenditure – in 2019, it was about a tenth of the amount spent by the government on health in England, and just over a third of the amount devoted to defense,” the organization says.

Churches Together also said the UK should be “proud” of its commitment to international aid – which was trailblazing in Europe – and mindful to keep its promises.

“The 0.7 percent commitment has been the subject of cross-party consensus for 15 years, even through the financial crash of 2008-9. In 2015 all the major parties supported enshrining the target in legislation in perpetuity. The Conservative party restated its commitment to maintaining the aid budget in its 2019 election manifesto, and again when the Department for International Development was merged into the Foreign Office in the summer of 2020. Cutting aid would be a breach of promises made to the electorate and to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” the statement says.

“In an age of global interdependence, helping to build safer, fairer, healthier societies where all can thrive is in everyone’s interests.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome