The cuts to the UK aid budget first announced a year ago have already taken effect this year — and in their wake many life-saving programmes fighting poverty in the world’s poorest communities have already closed, with devastating consequences.
A temporary cut of the UK budget from 0.7% of the country’s Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5% was voted through in the House of Commons in July. That 0.2% difference represents an approximately £4.5 billion reduction on previous years’ budgets.
And now Wednesday’s budget announcement from Chancellor Rishi Sunak has confirmed that these cuts will be in place until at least the financial year 2024/25.
Not only will the cut from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5% continue for at least three years, but it looks likely that the Treasury will classify other spending, such as sharing excess vaccine doses and debt relief for poorer countries, as part of the remaining aid budget, according to news reports.
That means the amount that is left in the budget for regular high-impact aid-funded programmes focusing on poverty alleviation will be set back even further.
After the budget announcement Stephanie Draper, the chief executive of Bond, which represents a network of UK organisations working in international development, explained how this amounted to “accounting trickery” and was essentially another round of cuts.
“It now looks certain that the Treasury will use accountancy trickery to make the aid budget pay for re-channelling Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), excess vaccine doses, and debt relief,” she said. “So the government is once again balancing the books on the backs of the poorest and jeopardising trust in the UK around the world.”
“There will be even less funding for humanitarian and development programmes and potentially a third round of cuts to life saving work,” Draper continued. “With such strong messages about the strength of our economy, it’s sad that the Chancellor can’t be as generous as the British public towards those suffering the most from the pandemic and climate change.”
The UK’s “re-channelling of Special Drawing Rights” that Draper refers to is in reference to an emergency fund created by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help the world deal with the shocks to the economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK will receive $27.4 billion (£20 billion) as its share of the allocation from the $650 billion IMF fund, which is intended to provide financial assistance to poorer countries.
While other rich nations are counting this emergency fund allocation as separate to their international aid budgets, the UK looks set to count up to 30% of its spending via this fund as part of its own aid budget, according to the Guardian and Devex — although this was not confirmed by the Treasury on Wednesday. That essentially means that less of the UK’s own budget for international aid will be in addition to that which comes from the Special Drawing Rights fund, squeezing the aid budget further.
Marie Rumsby, Global Citizen's UK Country Director, added that there is a troubling lack of detail about the next three years of a reduced aid budget.
“The Chancellor has said that the fiscal situation should allow a return to 0.7% of GNI for aid in 2024/2025. Yet he has said nothing on what might happen between now and then,” she said.
“Without the commitment to protect our spending in low-income countries now, the UK will not live up to its stated intention to be the kind of genuinely problem solving, burden sharing, outward-looking country it aspires to be,” Rumsby continued. “On the eve of COP26, this is an alarming situation to be in.”
Other international development organisations have expressed their dismay at the implications of this longer-term aid cut too.
Dr. Alvaro Bermejo, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation said in a statement sent to Global Citizen: “The catastrophic cuts to the UK aid budget have already devastated the health and lives of millions of women, girls, and marginalised people across the globe. To find out that the government will not return to the 0.7% until at least 2024 is frankly appalling and a sure sign that the 0.5% target is not just a move caused by a temporary lack of resources. We also remain concerned about the government using accounting tricks to reduce funding further.”
He added that his organisation, which delivers sexual and reproductive health care around the world, is already “feeling the loss of critical funding to programmes and budgets.”
“This spending review again demonstrates that we can’t rely on the UK government as a trusted partner to the people we serve," he added. "It is almost impossible to deliver against government promises without the necessary transparency and funding.”
Many organisations have also highlighted that the decision does not stand the UK in good stead ahead of hosting the COP26 summit in Glasgow over the next two weeks. Britain is in the position to persuade world leaders to take important steps to reduce carbon emissions and provide funds to support low and middle-income countries to respond to the climate crisis.
Andrew Norton, director at the International Institute for Environment and Developmenttold reporters: “It seems the hosts of the crucial COP26 climate talks are setting themselves up to fail by throwing away any moral authority they might have had to hold others to account."
Norton added that this situation puts at risk “the climate finance pledges necessary to address the climate crisis we all face."
Meanwhile, Matthew Lake, the country representative at Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM-UK), an education organisation working Bangladesh, told Global Citizen: “We are desperately disappointed that 1,250 out-of-school children in Bangladesh, who live In areas increasingly prone to flooding as a result of climate change, will no longer be able to access primary education as a result of these brutal cuts."
“Surely this is the wrong message to be sending other global leaders as we head towards COP26? The cuts to programmes like ours need to be reversed,” Lake said.
Other areas of the budget announcement also caused concern when it comes to Britain’s climate leadership include a plan to cut air passenger duty (a form of tax) on domestic flights and to freeze fuel duty.
Ahead of COP26, you can take action with Global Citizen here to call on the UK government to step up and show the leadership on climate change, and other pressing global challenges, the world needs.