While the UK government announced it would be cutting the UK aid budget by 30% late last year, it’s only now that full details of what will be cut and crucially, by how much, are emerging.
And the axe hasn’t fallen evenly, with projects fighting AIDs, supporting women’s health, and supplying clean water seeing well over half their funding cut. Some are seeing a shortfall of 85% or more.
The cuts, which amount to approximately £4.5 billion, go back on a legal commitment and a Conservative manifesto pledge to keep the UK aid budget at 0.7% of the country’s Gross National Income (GNI) by bringing it down to 0.5%.
The government has argued it is necessary due to the cost the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the country's economy.
However, more than 200 NGOs working in the world’s poorest countries and on the front lines of humanitarian crises — such as those seen in Yemen and Syria — warn that the reduction will make little difference to the UK's finances, while having life and death consequences abroad.
Here are some of the areas seeing the most dramatic falls in funding as a result of UK aid cuts.
Family planning and reproductive health
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is facing a cut of 85% from the British government, a statement from the organisation said on April 29. The UN agency said the UK had pledged £154 million for its projects but now says it will get just £23 million this year.
UNFPA works to improve women and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services and maternal health care in the world’s poorest countries.
Some of its targets include training thousands of health workers so that women have access to a skilled attendant when giving birth, providing 20 million women and girls with access to modern contraception each year, and fighting against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The agency therefore plays a vital role in supporting women and their families, ensuring new babies have a healthy start to life, and helping girls stay in school longer by giving them the choice to plan when they start a family.
UNFPA executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem estimates that the £130 million lost this year would have helped prevent about 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies, and 4.3 million unsafe abortions.
Kanem added, in an interview with the BBC, that the organisation, “deeply regrets the decision of our long-standing partner and advocate to step away from its commitments at a time when inequalities are deepening.”
In addition to the cuts to UNFPA, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has said it will lose about £72 million in UK aid this year. It describes this as a “significant” loss that will mean reductions to the UK’s flagship Women’s Integrated Sexual Health programme and the closure of services in countries including Lebanon, Mozambique, Nepal, and Uganda in the next 90 days. More countries will see services stopped if additional funding is not found, the organisation said.
Water and sanitation
Funding for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects will be cut by 80%, according to a leaked memo seen by Sky News.
Reducing support for clean water access and good hygiene are particularly worrying at a time when the world is still battling the COVID-19 pandemic and people are being encouraged to wash their hands frequently to reduce the risk of spreading infection.
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.
The impact on water and hygiene projects has caused a stir in Westminster too. On May 6 a cross-party group of 29 MPs and 37 peers from the House of Lords wrote to the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) urging ministers to reconsider this cut.
“The British people support aid for water and sanitation because it saves lives and stops the spread of disease. We urgently ask that you reconsider these proposals which will impact most those who have the least,” the letter said.
Humanitarian support to Yemen and Syria
The conflict in Yemen has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, by the International Rescue Committee, and in March the UN warned millions were at risk of famine, with some 50,000 people already experiencing famine conditions.
The UK is cutting its humanitarian aid for Yemen from the £197 million pledged in 2020 to £87 million this year — a cut of 56%. The government admitted in April it had done no impact assessment of what this dramatic change could do beforehand.
Global Citizen joined 100 other UK non-profits in March to sign a letter condemning the move.
“Cutting aid to starving people is not the action of a global leader about to host both the G7 Summit and the climate change negotiations for COP26,” the letter said.
Syria is also a fragile nation ravaged by a decade of conflict, and will see funding for its food and economic support programmes reduced.
UK NGO Care has been told that its Syrian food, jobs, and protection programme faces a cut of two-thirds, the Guardian reports. Approximately 90% of Syrians are living in poverty, and 24 million people rely on aid to survive.
Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases
Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) are often called “diseases of poverty” because they affect the world’s poorest people and can have deadly, or more often life-changing consequences.
They include diseases like trachoma which causes blindness, and Chagas, an insect-borne infection that causes chronic health problems and is described as a “silent killer” because sufferers often wait months for symptoms to appear.
But funding to defeat these diseases is very much at risk — it faces a drop from £167 million last year to just £17 million this year, which amounts to an enormous 90% cut, according to a Telegraph report.
1/4: UK Coalition statement in response to ODA cuts. We are proud of the legacy of UK investment in NTDs and are gravely concerned by the recent decision by @FCDOGovUK to significantly cut #UKAid , and as part of this decision, to withdraw UK support to NTD programmes. pic.twitter.com/1r9hSYoqaH— UK Coalition against NTDs (@UKCoalitionNTDs) April 28, 2021
Some projects have already been affected. The Ascend programme — a £220 million flagship programme to end neglected tropical diseases in Africa — has had its funding drastically reduced and faces early closure, according to Research Professional News.
Meanwhile funding for research and development (R&D) for malaria treatments and diagnostic tests at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Imperial College London has been cut.
At both universities scientists are part way through their research which could now be derailed. Dr. Aubrey Cunnington, a malaria and infectious disease researcher at Imperial College London, told the Independent he is set to lose £19 million from a project developing innovative tests to diagnose malaria.
He said: “Cutting R&D funding for these diagnostics risks a future in which we see resurgence of malaria and all of the achievements of previous investment being wiped out.”
Writing for Global Citizen, Ellen Agler, the CEO of the END Fund which works to end NTDs, said progress towards this goal has been accelerating. “It is critical that British leadership stays the course in this movement to end NTDs over the coming decade,” she wrote.
The UK’s funding to a UN agency dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDs has been cut by 83% — from £15 million to just £2.3 million.
The main goal of UNAIDs, the agency in question, is to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030, as part of the UN's Global Goals.
Speaking to Devex magazine in response to the news, Saoirse Fitzpatrick, the advocacy manager at the nonprofit STOPAIDS, said: “These cuts will hit the most marginalised communities around the world hardest.”
“It threatens to undo decades of progress made in the HIV response that UK Aid has made possible,” Fitzpatrick added.
Since its foundation in 1988 the initiative had, through vast immunisation campaigns, eradicated 99.9% of wild polio by 2019, dramatically reducing the incidence of this debilitating and sometimes deadly disease. The world was seeing 350,000 cases of polio per year in the 1980s, whereas in 2020, there had been just 441 cases of wild cases of polio by October.
On May 4 the GPEI released a statement saying that the near-total drop in funding from the UK comes at a “critical moment” in its mission, and risks “delaying polio eradication.”
“The GPEI recognises the challenging economic circumstances faced by the UK government,” the statement continues.
But adds: “Cutting the UK government’s contributions by 95% will, however, put millions of children at increased risk of diseases such as polio and will weaken the ability of countries to detect and respond to outbreaks of polio and other infectious diseases, including COVID-19.”
The UK government could be set to spend 80% less on projects combating malnutrition and child hunger this year, according to an analysis from the humanitarian NGO Save the Children.
They estimate that the amount the UK will spend on nutrition services is down from £122 million in 2019 to just £26 million this year.
Save the Children explains that they applied the stated regional aid cuts to Africa and Asia, which have both seen an aid cut of about two thirds, to the amount usually spent in those areas on nutrition using data published by the International Aid Transparency Initiative.
They then combined that figure with what they know from other nutrition programmes that have announced cuts, for example the charity Power of Nutrition has had a 60% cut from UK aid funding, Save the Children told Global Citizen. The combined amount that remains adds up to £26 million.
The news follows the publication of the annual Global Report on Food Crises, on May 5, which found that at least 155 million people are acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance living in the 55 countries the report assessed (all are countries that receive external support for food). That is an increase of 20 million people from 2019.
Kirsty McNeill, the Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children UK said: “The UK’s strategy is incoherent and inconsistent. The government is paying lip service to preventing famine while slashing the very programmes that will keep malnourished children alive, at a time when global hunger is increasing.”
“We are looking at the near collapse of British help for hungry children in some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries, including Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan.”
More details are emerging about the UK aid cuts all the time, so follow Global Citizen on Facebook and Twitter @GlblCtznUK to stay up to date. And take action with us to raise your voice in support of UK aid by emailing your MP.