Covid-19 shows us why UK Aid should be invested in creating a healthier, safer world

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The UK has long been a leader in helping the world’s most vulnerable people escape the cycle of poverty – whether through education, healthcare or providing the very basics of clean water and a lavatory. 

But hygiene and handwashing has always been a ‘poor cousin’ – neglected and often forgotten, that is until the world found itself facing a global pandemic with no vaccine, and prevention as our only option.  

Despite huge progress that has led to 1.8 billion people gaining access to basic drinking water services since 2000, in sub-Saharan Africa, three-quarters of people don’t have soap and water to wash their hands with at home. Healthcare facilities – the very places that are supposed to make you well – also fair badly, with around half of centres in countries like Ethiopia, Liberia and Madagascar having nowhere for doctors to wash their hands where they treat patients. 

We are facing an ever more uncertain future, and there are big challenges ahead. Climate change is a crisis on our doorstep already and, combined with the devastating impacts of Covid-19, the World Bank is warning that between 88m and 115m more people will be pushed into extreme poverty this year.

The challenges can seem insurmountable and require a global approach. But we must play our part. Clean water, a good lavatory and somewhere to wash our hands are things we take for granted but underpin the development of entire countries. If children have access to good hygiene, they can stay healthy and more girls stay in school. If they can complete their education, they have the chance to lead productive lives that contribute to economies and help them to break the cycle of poverty they may have been born into. 

But global political focus, development finance and market-shaping activity are not meeting the scale of the challenge. Even before Covid-19 only 15 per cent of countries had the money they needed to get water, lavatories and hygiene to the people in their country without it. Of the $20tn committed to the Covid-19 response so far, a paltry 0.02 per cent has gone to water, lavatories and hygiene. 

In the UK we should be enormously proud of our track record contributing to global poverty reduction. Since 2015, we have exceeded our target, reaching 62 million people with sustainable water and sanitation services. We should build on this foundation, placing the provision of vital services at the very heart of Covid-19 recovery. This represents a no regrets investment that saves lives and builds resilience to the challenges that lie ahead. Ensuring that all people have decent jobs and income, food security, and access to clean water and appropriate health care is also an efficient way to reduce climate change vulnerability.

The new FCDO was established to allow Britain to have an even greater impact on global challenges. The partnership with Unilever to run innovative awareness and behaviour change campaigns targeting 1 billion people is a good start. Another critical next step would be galvanising donors behind the UN’s Hand Hygiene for All partnership, coordinating delivery of credible, costed national hygiene plans. 

Finally, we must use the opportunities provided by our presidency of the G7 and of COP26 to show that pandemic preparedness planning is more than finding a vaccine, and climate resilience is more than reducing carbon emissions. We can achieve this and so much more in the year ahead if we focus on getting the basics right first. 

  • Andrew Mitchell is former DfID Secretary of State and MP for Sutton Coldfield

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