Experts working in some of the world’s poorest countries have warned that the UK government’s decision to cut at least 50% of overseas aid in a matter of weeks will cost lives and damage Britain’s reputation in the world.
The speed of the cuts was described as “catastrophic” by Sarah Champion, the MP who chairs the parliamentary select committee for international development — a cross-party group of politicians that scrutinise decision-making in this area of policy.
“Our ambassadors have today been instructed to cut 50-70% from the aid budget,” Champion told the Guardian on Tuesday, referring to a call from the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), which handles the aid budget, to diplomats stationed around the world.
“There is no doubt that lives will be lost as a consequence and our global standing as humanitarians destroyed,” she added.
The committee heard from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about what the cuts would involve, but Champion said that “little was forthcoming in detail” in terms of exactly which projects would be chopped.
Raab did give a list of strategic priorities that his department wants to protect. He said those priorities were: “an overarching pursuit of poverty reduction; climate and biodiversity; COVID-19 and global health security; girls’ education; science and research; defending open societies and resolving conflict; humanitarian assistance; and promoting trade.”
The aid budget has officially been cut by a third to £10 billion for 2020-2021, the equivalent of cutting it from 0.7% of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) to 0.5% — despite the fact that the pledge to provide 0.7% of the UK's GDP to foreign aid was enshrined in law in 2015.
Experts argue that because a large chunk of that money has already been committed, the cut actually amounts to more.
Researchers from thinktank Centre of Global Development have analysed the aid budget and found that £6.6 billion of the £10 billion has already been committed to international institutions that deliver aid, leaving only £3.5 billion for bilateral aid (meaning direct aid from the UK) — a cut of 60% on the equivalent bilateral aid figure for 2019.
Underlining the devastating impact of these cuts on the horizon, Marie Rumbsy, the UK country director for Global Citizen, said: “We have to remember that the impact of these cuts is on real people and their lives. Unfortunately, lives will be lost because of these cuts and the way they are being implemented. The UK is stepping away from its responsibilities at a time when we need UK moral leadership more than ever.”
Other experts in the field have raised concerns that projects helping the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic will be at risk. They also argue that the value for money for the British tax payer will also be undermined by hasty decisions if projects are abandoned half-way through.
Ian Mitchell, co-director at the Centre for Global Development, told the Guardian that some of the programmes that aren’t protected from the potential drop in funding cover “issues such as basic health, so they are relevant in fighting the COVID-19 panemic.”
“This will be a major challenge for the UK’s poorest partners as they respond to the pandemic,” he continued.
“The second issue is that many programmes are multi-year, so ministers will likely be cutting short projects that will no longer see their intended outcomes... We can expect ministers to be pushed into decisions that won’t protect the best programmes and will undermine value for money,” Mitchell added.
A women’s right activist from Sierra Leone, Chernor Bah, said the upcoming cuts were a “gut punch that will crumble live-saving work.”
Bah runs a grassroots project called Purposeful in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that supports women and girls fighting for change in their communities — for example, by supporting girl-centred solutions to ending child marriage.
“These cuts will have very real impacts on the lives and livelihoods of real girls and women: for our programmes in particular, they mean less access to social capital critical to girls’ survival, less access to education and livelihood opportunities, and less access to alternative life skills provision,” she told the Guardian.
“It’s simply giving up on these girls and women and stating that their lives matter less, as they’re the first to be expended,” Bah continued.
Others also highlighted the important role Britain is playing on the world stage in 2021 as hosts of the United Nations' annual climate change conference, COP26, as well as the G7 summit.