Britain reduced its foreign aid spending commitment on Wednesday to 0.5% of gross domestic product from 0.7%, causing an immediate outcry from international development organisations and the spiritual head of the Church of England.
The move, announced by finance minister Rishi Sunak as part of an annual review of government spending, will be popular among some voters and media who argue that Covid and the resulting economic crisis mean Britain should spend less on aid.
"During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people, especially when we are seeing the highest peacetime levels of borrowing on record," Sunak said in a speech to parliament.
"I have listened with great respect to those who have argued passionately to retain this target. But at a time of unprecedented crisis, the government must make tough choices."
The announcement was met with a flood of criticism, including from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Communion.
"The cut in the aid budget - made worse by no set date for restoration - is shameful and wrong," he said on Twitter, urging lawmakers to vote against the measure.
Development and environment charities said the move was short-sighted.
"Cutting the aid budget during a global pandemic is like closing fire stations during a heatwave," said Patrick Watt, Director of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns at Christian Aid.
Oxfam said the decision would diminish British influence and leadership at a time when both were badly needed.
"Breaking our aid promise risks significantly undermining one of the UK's genuine claims to global leadership at a time when it will need all the moral authority it can muster as host of next year's G7 summit and UN Climate Change negotiations," said Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB.
The 0.7% target, originally introduced by Tony Blair when he was prime minister, was a commitment made by the ruling Conservative Party in the run-up to last year's election and repeated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Prior to Sunak's announcement, former prime ministers Blair and David Cameron had urged the government to retain the target.