Everyone saw it coming. But it doesn’t make the cruel reality of UK aid cuts any less shocking.
Billions are due to be slashed from Britain’s budget set up to lift people from extreme poverty worldwide. And one leaked government memo has given a glimpse into some of the devastation: almost all of the money for clean water and sanitation projects has been cut.
The UK’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programmes will see its bilateral funding (meaning money given by one government to another) slashed by 80%, according to the memo seen by Sky News.
The memo also reportedly acknowledged that many would be “worried” by the news, given rising COVID-19 cases that could be combated by improving personal hygiene.
It's a result of the almost £5 billion in cuts to UK aid announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in November 2020. The budget is legally ring-fenced at 0.7% of gross national income (GNI).
Despite the protestations of over 200 charities and a growing rebellion of influential backbench Conservative MPs, the government has insisted on reducing aid to 0.5% of GNI. There are no plans as of yet to bring a vote on the proposed changes to parliament.
When you account for multilateral aid spending too (defined as funding that goes to international organisations that invest in multiple countries, like the World Health Organization) the total reduction in WASH spending comes to 64%.
In response to the “savage cuts,” Tim Wainwright, the CEO of WaterAid, called for the decision to be urgently reversed.
"There is never a good time to cut aid for lifesaving water and sanitation, but the middle of the worst pandemic for 100 years must be one of the worst," Wainwright said.
As more details of the huge #UKAid cuts emerge, we are seeing the devastating real world impacts.— Baroness Sugg (@liz_sugg) April 27, 2021
As @WaterAidUK say, there is never a good time to cut aid for lifesaving water & sanitation, but the middle of the worst pandemic for 100 years must be one of the worst. https://t.co/9sNsaY2WOz
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly having “queasy second thoughts” about UK aid cuts, given that he will be hosting world leaders in Cornwall for the G7 Summit in June, and for the biggest climate conference since the Paris Agreement, called COP26, in Glasgow for November.
And yet the memo appears to accept that in the context of the pandemic, the UK’s leadership would come into question.
An excerpt from the leaked memo, according to Sky News, reads: "We expect criticism on the reduction in spend, particularly as the UK public views WASH as a priority area for UK aid, because hand hygiene is widely recognised as a critical intervention to counter the spread of COVID-19, and because the cuts are being announced in the year that the UK is hosting COP26."
But this is just the start.
With the UK also hosting a crucial summit in July 2021 to lead global action on education, in partnership with Kenya, the foreign secretary has been challenged on plans to cut aid for girls' education by 40%. Dominic Raab runs the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), the government department responsible for spending UK aid after the Department for International Development (DfID) was controversially scrapped last year.
Since 2016, the UK has on average spent £672 million a year of aid on girls’ education — the 2021 commitment so far is just £400 million. Johnson has previously professed his own personal commitment to global education, calling it “fundamental.”
Experts and campaigners have reacted with fury to the news of the cuts.
"Cutting the last line of defence against the spread of COVID-19 will cause untold deaths and risk further waves and mutations of the virus," Preet Kaur Gill, Labour's shadow international development secretary, told Sky News.
She added: "The government must stop trying to avoid scrutiny and come clean by publishing all planned spending of UK aid in 21/22."
Already, almost 60% has been cut in aid to Yemen, a country in conflict on the brink of the worst famine the world has seen in decades. Government officials have since admitted that there was no impact assessment done to understand the potential consequences of that decision.
In addition to the WASH cuts, there will be a “catastrophic” 95% cut in funding for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a partnership that has been at the forefront of efforts in recent decades that have seen the elimination of 99.9% of polio cases worldwide.
With funding cut from £100 million to just £5 million, it decimates the UK’s historic leadership on the issue. Aaron Oxley, executive director at RESULTS UK, said that cutting polio funding demonstrated “spectacular shortsightedness” from the government.