Supporting 8 million girls into education. Ensuring 5.6 million safe births. Helping to almost completely eradicate polio. Helping the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). Providing almost 20 million food rations for Syrian refugees. Building schools and toilets in Kenya. Giving lifesaving shelter to hundreds of thousands of Nepalese people after earthquakes. These are all things that were made possible by funding from the UK’s international aid.

But in 2020, that budget was cut, to devastating effect and the reverberations continue to be felt by the most vulnerable around the world, particularly women and girls. Aid sent to Syria, for example, was slashed by 69%, including cuts to programmes on education, health, maternal health, and for Palestinian refugees. As a result, according to charity Syria Relief, more than 40,000 Syrian children are now out of school as a direct result of the aid cuts.

With the war in Ukraine, and the resulting looming global hunger crisis; the millions facing acute hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia due to drought; the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan in which millions of Afghans are suffering from starvation, with some even forced to sell body parts to feed their families; the continuing refugee crisis in Syria where millions of people are still living displacement camps more than 10 years after the conflict began, and the famine gripping Tigray, campaigners agree that it is more important than ever to restore funding for UK aid. 

In fact, UK ministers have been accused of choosing the “worst moment in history” to slash the international aid budget, along with warnings that it urgently needs to be restored to cope with the scale of humanitarian disasters worldwide.

Leading thinktank and advocacy nonprofit, ONE Campaign, revealed in March 2022 in an in-depth study that the countries seeing the biggest negative impact from the government cuts were also among the world’s poorest. 

ONE’s UK director, Romilly Greenhill, said: “We’re in a different world to when the aid budget was first cut. Since the chancellor announced the cut in 2020, circumstances have changed, and the justification that was used then no longer holds.” Meanwhile, Save the Children said the government had lost its moral compass. 

Here’s everything you need to know about UK aid, and why it matters.

What Is UK Aid in One Sentence?

UK aid is a pot of money that goes towards helping reduce poverty worldwide and achieve the UN’s Global Goals, including things like tackling hunger, achieving gender equality, combating climate change, improving health care, and more.

Why Do We Send Aid Abroad?

There are two main reasons. 

First, it’s the right thing to do. 

Second, (and we know this more in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic than ever) our world is interconnected. It's in the UK’s interests that we help build a more prosperous world. If we don't, the problems of conflict, climate change, global health crises, and mass migration are all issues that don’t recognise borders and will impact our lives here in the UK too.

How Much Does the UK Give in Aid?

In 1970, the United Nations set a target for countries to contribute 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to international aid.

The UK government signed up to that pledge in 1974, but only hit the target for the first time in 2013.

In 2015, hitting that 0.7% was enshrined in UK law. But while the obligation couldn't actually be enforced through the courts, it did mean that ministers would have to explain themselves to Parliament if the UK didn’t meet the target.

In 2020, the UK cut its international aid from 0.7% to 0.5%. The reasoning was sparse but the Chancellor of the Exchequer noted it was because the UK was in a “time of unprecedented crisis.” The cut from 0.7% to 0.5% represented a decrease of £4.5 billion, bringing the amount the UK gives in aid each year to £10 billion. To put that into perspective, the UK spends £19 billion a year just on food waste.

Who Does It Go To?

The aid can go directly from the donor country to the beneficiary country. This is called “bilateral” aid. It can also take the form of contributions from nations to the operating costs and programmes of international organisations (such as UNICEF, the UN’s Children’s Fund, or the World Bank): this is called “multilateral” aid.

Then the country or organisation divvies up this money between NGOs and nonprofits operating on the ground and it reaches people like Bayush, a victim of child marriage, to help rebuild her life.

Over the years, UK aid has had a huge impact including: vaccinating more than 12 million children against preventable diseases; supporting 5.3 million children (2.5 million of them were girls) to go to primary school; enabling 11.9 million people to lift themselves out of poverty through access to financial services; reaching 6 million people with emergency food assistance; supporting freer and fairer elections in five countries; improving hygiene conditions for 7.4 million people, and more. 

Why Is It More Important Than Ever?

As of 2021, 1.3 billion people in 109 countries live in poverty. Half of them are children. Many more can’t access health care or education, are denied their rights, or have their lives destroyed by humanitarian disaster or conflict. 

UK aid was once a powerful tool to combat these inequalities, but in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the government slashed the aid budget by 30%. But COVID-19 didn’t suddenly make humanitarian crises disappear. It aggravated them. 

Once funding was cut, millions of people suffered. Most of them were women and girls, who are the most vulnerable and marginalised people on the planet.

Despite knowing the repercussions this would have, the government reduced the aid fund — and it was the only member of the G7 to have done so. 

The war against Ukraine — in addition to causing immense human suffering and devastation — has only made things worse. When the government announced £120 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine, what they didn't say was that the funding was being diverted directly from funds earmarked for Yemen and other humanitarian crises — effectively pitting one group of vulnerable people against another.

Rather than serving as an excuse not to end poverty or take action against gender inequality, the crisis in Ukraine should instead be the starting point for more urgent action. We must act now — and that means restoring the UK aid budget to its former glory.

How Can You Help?

Now more than ever, UK aid is essential, as millions of people around the world are facing increased difficulties. Join Global Citizens supporting our campaign to empower women and girls, and address the most pressing challenges facing the world right now by calling on the UK government to increase aid. 

1. Email Your MP — Send an email to your local MP to urge them to restore the aid budget in this time of urgent need.
2. Take Our Quiz — School and test yourself on everything there is to know about UK aid. 
3. Tweet Rishi Sunak — Tweet Chancellor Rishi Sunak and tell him to stop pitting one humanitarian crisis against another and restore the UK’s aid budget.


Demand Equity

UK Aid: What Is It, Where Does It Go, and Why Does It Matter?

By Tess Lowery