The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) is reportedly under pressure to make reductions of up to 30% to some aid projects dedicated to alleviating extreme poverty.
The revelation comes from international development publication Devex, which reported that there are concerns in the nonprofit sector that the cuts are being made in an unstrategic way — meaning projects that protect the most marginalised are not being protected.
The news comes after it was announced on June 16 that DfID would be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) — a decision that over 200 charities, including Global Citizen, have urged the government to reverse.
The planned merger means that DfID, which was recently rated again among the most transparent aid agencies in the world by the Aid Transparency Index, will cease to have full control of its spending by September. Instead the FCO, which has a comparatively weak record of accountability and transparency will be responsible for managing the UK aid budget.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also signalled that he wants aid to work in “Britain’s interests” rather focus on alleviating extreme poverty.
“First and foremost, aid should be about ending extreme poverty for the poorest people in the world — not meeting our own national objectives,” said Zoe Kelland, digital campaigns director at Global Citizen. “The UK's international aid budget has an enormous impact, from putting girls in school to saving lives through vaccines, and it’s vital that these programmes are protected.”
“It's extremely concerning to hear reports that vital programmes are already being halted or threatened with cuts at a time when people are struggling more than ever,” she added.
Since aid spending, known as Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), is linked to the size of the economy — the UK is committed by law to spend 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on aid — then the aid budget has been expected to decline as the economy has shrunk, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, although government ministers are yet to confirm any economy-related reductions to the aid budget, it’s reported that cuts are already underway. Some of DfID’s partners are worried it could be linked to the FCO department merger.
Similarly, the Independent reported on June 20 that DfID has already paused new grants as it prepares to see its budget slashed as the economy contracts, and ahead of the merger in September.
The report in the Independent notes that it is “understood that only DfID’s funding” — specifically dedicated to reducing poverty worldwide — “is currently being targeted, while the 27% of the aid budget spent by other departments remains intact.”
Projects in Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been threatened with cuts, Devex reports, while a maternal health programme in the Central African Republic, run by the nonprofit organisation Concern Worldwide, has now been paused.
“The project is subject to DfID review,” said Gavin Crowden, director of policy and campaigns at Concern. “That programme had already pivoted to support coronavirus response and was ready to go, but we’ve had to wait to get the go-ahead.”
Meanwhile a poverty reduction programme in Malawi run by UK charity United Purpose has already been asked to cut its budget, according to Peter Sargent, its chief operations officer.
Sargent said they were 18 months into a 4-year contract, funded by a DfID grant that has now been stopped early, meaning that the communities they had built relationships with will be let down. “It means the things we talked about with those communities [in Malawi] cannot be delivered within our current contracts,” Sargent said.
As well as the disruption to on-going work, aid leaders and programme managers have said that the pandemic is the worst time for cuts to happen and will risk lives.
Jo Hook, the managing director of a small community development charity Temwa, which also works in Malawi, told the Independent in their June 20 report: “If you stop funding to the world’s poorest countries in the middle of a global pandemic, there is no doubt that millions of people will be severely affected."
Meanwhile Laurie Lee, chief executive of Care International said: “If we want to prioritise coronavirus and saving lives, DfID would be the last bit of money that would be cut. Instead, it looks like being the first.”
In response to the reports, a DfID spokesman said in a statement to Devex: “As the PM said, reducing poverty will remain central to the work of UK aid. The government remains committed to the target of spending 0.7% of our national income on aid, which is enshrined in law."
“Given the expected fall in GNI this year, new commitments of aid spending are being reviewed across all departments," they added. "No decision has been taken, but we are considering the full range of our work."