The government has cut £2.9 billion from the UK’s lifesaving aid budget, due to the economic downturn as a result of COVID-19.
Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, announced the changes in a letter published on Wednesday evening.
But the timing of the cuts has drawn criticism because, with members of parliament (MPs) now heading out for their summer recess, there isn’t an opportunity for parliament to immediately scrutinise the cuts.
Raab said in his letter that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had asked him to “identify the changes needed to ensure we meet, but do not exceed the 0.7% commitment” — referring to the commitment, written into UK law, that the UK will spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid.
Raab continued to say he has “chaired a careful review process looking at every strand of the ODA [Official Development Assistance] budget, evaluating the impacts of spend and making sure we can maintain operational capacity.”
He further said that the UK’s aid spend in 2020 “remains prioritised on poverty reduction for the ‘bottom billion’, as well as tackling climate change and reversing biodiversity loss, championing girls education, UK leadership in the global response to COVID-19, and campaigning on issues such as media freedom and freedom of religious belief.”
He said that the package of reductions identified includes “underspends, delaying activity, and stopping some spend.”
The decision, and the timing of the decision, have sparked outcry from critics, including British NGOs and the chairperson, Sarah Champion, of the cross-party Commons International Development Committee.
Champion described it as “poor practice” to announce the cuts on the last day before MPs leave parliament for summer recess — as it means there won’t be an opportunity for MPs to scrutinise the cuts.
“The announcement today raises more questions than it answers,” she said. “The letter speaks of delaying activity and stopping some spending — what is the timescale on this?”
“If it is with immediate effect, do the projects know or will they find out via the media, as DfID [Department for International Development] staff did about the merger? Is there an overarching strategy in place?” she continued.
“Will the evaluation of the impact of these cuts be made public?” she added. “Where is the scrutiny? Clearly there has been no consultation, but to release this news literally as parliament rises so there can be no scrutiny by MPs is poor practice.”
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat international development spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain, stressed that for “so many vulnerable people in need around the world, UK international aid has made the difference between life and death.”
“This devastating cut to international aid is a clear sign that the UK is abandoning the world stage,” she added. “Because of this government, more children will have their life chances blighted by poverty.”
The cuts to the aid budget come after an announcement on June 16 that the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) will be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), in a decision that shocked British charities and drew cross-party condemnation and concern.
Anti-poverty organisations and campaigners across the country are horrified by the risk the merger and cuts present to the world’s most vulnerable people and communities — who are also disproportionately bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the announcement of the merger of the two departments, 188 UK aid and development leaders from charities and think tanks across Britain united to publish an urgent open letter to Johnson, asking him to swiftly reconsider the decision or put millions of lives at risk.
The letter, coordinated by Bond — a network of the UK’s non-profit organisations — argued that abolishing one of the world’s most effective and respected government departments, and at a time when global leadership and unity is needed more than ever, only serves to undermine the UK’s response to the pandemic and to other urgent global issues.
In response to the cuts announced on Wednesday, Bond’s CEO Stephanie Draper said in a statement: “At a time when we are facing the biggest health and humanitarian crisis of our lifetime, we would urge the government to ring fence aid going towards our global COVID-19 response, and any aid that supports marginalised people facing poverty, inequality, disease, conflict, and climate change.”
“COVID-19 has created both a health and economic crisis,” she added. “This makes it even more imperative that any aid cuts must not be shouldered by people who are already bearing the brunt of this double tragedy and, as a result, are being pushed further into poverty.”
Draper further urged the government to instead look at cutting programmes that have already been found to not deliver for the world’s poorest people.
She highlighted, as one example, the funding that goes to the CDC Group — the UK’s development finance institution — which has already “been called out for being ineffective in terms of poverty alleviation.”
Draper also send that the government should rethink its use of “promissory notes” this year — so that the funding promised in advance to both the CDC and to multilateral institutions is “instead reallocated towards programmes that are already up and running, delivering health care, water and sanitation, education, and food, but are now facing cuts because of the inevitable fall in GNI.”
You can join the movement to help ensure UK aid is always spent most effectively with a focus on eradicating extreme poverty and its systemic causes, by taking action with us here.