UK aid cuts: little information, but devastating consequences

20 May 2021

Over the last few weeks, there has been a constant drip feed of bad news as details of the UK government’s aid cuts have been revealed.  

There has been little information from the government, so NGOs, UN agencies and others impacted by the cuts have been sharing information and speaking out. While we only have a partial picture, we know that that lifesaving and life transforming aid projects are being decimated.  

The foreign secretary promised there would be no salami slicing to find the savings needed by the government’s decision to deviate from the legally binding commitment to allocate 0.7% of GNI to overseas development assistance. Instead he used a bulldozer. 

What we know 

A few weeks ago, we finally got a glimpse of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) budget for 2021-22. A written statement to Parliament summarised plans for the FCDO’s £8 billion official development assistance (ODA) allocation, neatly organised into a short list of categories. Altogether just over £4 billion (about half) on the FCDO’s aid budget has been allocated to the FCDO’s new seven strategic priorities. An additional 4 billion is allocated to crosscutting programmes, financial transactions, international subscriptions, arm's length bodies and FCDO core operating costs. 

Priority  

Budget Allocation 

Percentage of Total FCDO ODA Allocation  

Climate change and biodiversity 

£534 million 

6.5% 

Covid-19 and global health 

£1,305 million 

16% 

Girls’ education 

£400 million 

5% 

Humanitarian preparedness and response 

£906 million 

11% 

Open societies & conflict 

£419 million 

5% 

Research 

£38 million 

.47% 

Trade 

£491 million 

6% 

Subtotal 

£4,093 million 

50% 

The written statement and subsequent interventions by ministers are focused not on the aid cuts, but on the 2021-22 ODA budget. So while parliamentarians, the UK’s development partners and the wider international development community are all asking questions about the cuts resulting from the drop to 0.5%, they are getting answers about what is in the 2021-22 aid budget. This now appears to be deliberate obfuscation similar to what happened (and continues to happen) around the cuts made in 2020 as GNI fell in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, where ministers still refuse to provide details of the cuts.  

The total amount of the cuts is unknown. We know that the aid budget has been reduced by about 28% because of the decision to drop the 0.7% commitment. And we know that the 2021-2022 aid budget has been set at £10 billion. However, because the aid budget is normally pegged to GNI (and as result rises and falls with GNI) we don’t know what the 2021 aid budget would have been if the government had met its commitments under the 2015 International Development Act. Thanks to information just published by the Treasury, we can say that this year’s aid budget will be £4.1 billion less than the 2020-21 aid allocations.   

In the absence of a comprehensive statement of the cuts being made to the aid budget by over £4 billion in a matter of months, Bond has been compiling information from a variety of sources. Here’s what we have so far.  

The scope and the scale of the cuts have been staggering

A number of funds, including those which support small charities have been scrapped all together: current and future rounds of a number of UK Aid Direct funds (including the Small Charities Challenge Fund), the Community Partnership Fund and Impact Grants have been cancelled. Only the Jo Cox Fund was unaffected by the cuts. Likewise, the UK Partnership for Health Systems aimed at building stronger, resilient health systems in low and lower middle-income countries has been cut one year into a four-year funding cycle.   

It is still unclear what happened to grants under UK Aid Connect or UK Aid Match. The FCDO have confirmed cuts to specific programmes funded by Aid Connect, but have said nothing about the fund as a whole. Even less is clear about the future of these funds, if and when the government resumes its commitment to meeting 0.7%.  

Multilateral funding to a raft of UN agencies including UNICEF, UNFPA, UNDP, UNAIDS has been cut by over £200 million, that we know of. Another £95 million has been cut from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.   

Alongside this, many individual organisations have seen huge cuts to their programmes and budgets. The government has not provided any big picture information on how or where these cuts are falling, but it is clear they are falling widely, with many organisations announcing programme cuts. This has included cuts to government priorities, such as health, girls education and research.  

Devex are compiling a timeline of cuts that have been made public. It makes for a sobering read.  

What we know is only the tip of the iceberg 

In total, the publicly announced cuts don’t come close to the full £4.1 billion that has been cut. This is, in part, because some of this year’s ODA allocations won’t yet have been made. And while we know some of what won’t happen (ie. UK Aid Direct funding rounds that have been cancelled, funding bids and grant renewals that won’t happen), a portion will be unknowable.  

But UK aid has been predictable until now and because the UK has been a leader in multi-year funding, the unknowable portion is likely much smaller than you’d expect. It is more than likely that someone out there has a terrible spreadsheet filled with details about what won’t be funded where. For now, the FCDO isn’t sharing.  

The information we do have is limited, based on what affected organisations have made public, calculations based on what little information the government has provided and some leaks. We can group what we know into a couple of baskets – cuts by sector, cuts by country or region, and cuts by organisation or fund. Unfortunately, we can’t simply add those baskets together, otherwise we’d risk double or triple counting certain cuts. But we already know that £4.1 billion has been cut, and those baskets do help up to understand what has been cut and where.  

The scale and speed of these cuts will have huge consequences 

In a recent appearance before the House of Lords select committee, the foreign secretary confirmed that bilateral aid to Africa will fall by 66% from £2.27 billion in 2020 to just £764 million in 21-22, despite still receiving half of the FCDO’s bilateral ODA. From this, we can extrapolate that the total bilateral ODA allocation for the FCDO is 21-22 amount to £1.5 billion, a significant drop from the £7.7 billion allocated by DFID bilaterally in 2020.1 This seems to confirm predictions by The One Campaign that bilateral programmes would experience deep cuts.  

The Indo-Pacific region is slated to receive one third of the FCDO’s bilateral aid budget (£510 million), and the rest of the world the remainder (£240 million). What is less clear is how these regional designations compare to those previously used and therefore what these amounts mean on the ground. The implications for UK funding to the Middle East are particularly unclear and potentially devastating.  

How these cuts will play out at country level remains to be seen. In March, pledging conferences for the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Syria gave an early indication of the country level cuts in the works. With UK pledges falling by 60% and 67% respectively. Leaks published by Open Democracy indicated that similar cuts were likely in other fragile and conflict affected contexts.   

What we know from the information leaked to Open Democracy adds up to an estimated £950 million in cuts for just a short list of aid recipients: Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, the Western Balkans and the Sahel. Particularly concerning is the scale of cuts this indicates to fragile and conflict affected contexts, seeming to confirm that the FCDO has abandoned the DFID commitment to spend 50% of ODA in those contexts.  

Even the new strategic priorities aren’t safe 

Since the 2021-22 budget was announced, there has been a spate of analysis looking at the impact on aid sectors. This sectoral analysis was also hindered by the UK government’s lack of transparency, in particular the decision of the FCDO to present its 21-22 ODA allocation by the new seven strategic priorities rather than the more commonly used sectoral designations. These cuts are across countries and regions, telling a similar story of devastating cuts.  

Of the seven new strategic priorities, only two have direct comparisons in the UK’s Statistics for International Development. Using 2019, the most recent year for which final data is available as a baseline, the global health and humanitarian figures provided in the written statement suggest cuts of up to 41% across bilateral and imputed multilateral funding. These huge cuts are not spread equally across the sector, with one leak asserting that funding to neglected tropical diseases has been cut by 90%.  

It is not possible to assess the changes (cuts or otherwise) for economic development and trade or research. The foreign secretary has conceded that funding for girls’ education has been cut by 40% since 2019, resulting in an estimated 700,000 fewer girls receiving support to stay in school. Climate and biodiversity appears to be the only sector to have received an increase in funding, with FCDO spending 22% more than in initial data for 2020. 

Cuts to other, non-priority sectors, are much deeper. A leaked memo revealed that bilateral funding for water and sanitation has been cut by 80%, a cut of over £140m based on 2019’s figures. When you include multilateral spend, water and sanitation has been cut by 64% to around £100m. This funding could have helped provide 7.4million people access clean water and/or sanitation as we continue to battle the Covid-19 pandemic12.  

Using IATI data, Save the Children has estimated that aid funding to tackle malnutrition has been cut in half, with funding to basic nutrition cut by 80% to less than £26 million. The FCDO has also made deep cuts to funding for sexual and reproductive health rights, including cuts to UNFPA (85%), Marie Stopes, International Planned Parenthood Federation and others.  

The impact of these cuts will be devastating 

Many have spoken out about the consequences of these cuts. Not only the scale, but also the speed at which organisations are having to shut down operations is hugely harmful. For example: 

An 85% cut to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) across both core funding and funding for the supplies programme. The funding to UNFPA would have helped prevent 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions.  

Funding for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has been cut by 95% from £100 million to just £5million, threatening efforts to finally eradicate the disease. The cut funding would have helped vaccinate 380 million children against polio. 

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) core funding has been cut by £33 million to £22 million, a 60% cut in funding. The funds lost could have helped 1.2 million people to have better access to basic services; 350,000 people in crisis-affected countries to get a job or better livelihood; 280,000 people to gain access to justice; and 23 million hectares of land and marine habitats be protected, improved or restored. 

UK funding to UNAIDS will be cut by 83%. This cut will jeopardise the fight to end HIV by 2030, which is at odds with the UK’s recent endorsement of UNAIDS’ new strategy to do just that. These cuts will hit the most marginalised communities around the world hardest and threatens to undo decades of progress made in the HIV response. 

The loss of smaller programmes, like Team Kenya’s Girls Education and Women’s empowerment project in Western Kenya will have equally devastating impacts for the communities they serve. 1,300 girls and 80 female caregivers will be directly affected as agri-business support, safe spaces and counselling services and parenting support initiatives are cancelled.  

Again, this is just what we know, have been able to estimate or has been leaked. The true impact of the cuts will be felt over the coming weeks, months and years as programmes are stopped or shrunk. Whilst the government insists this cut in necessary, the impact it will have on UK debt is insignificant, less than 1% even if the cuts are maintained for five years.  

In fact, the £4 billion cut to the aid budget is cancelled out by just a single year of the £16.5 billion increase to the defence budget over the next four years announced in 2020. Aid and development is not a tap that you can just turn off and on again. The cut might make a slight saving on the budget, but the impact on the most marginalised communities around the world is immediate, long lasting and will not be quickly repaired. These cuts will cost lives. 

About the author

Head shot of Abigael Baldoumas
Bond

Policy and advocacy manager - aid effectiveness at Bond