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UK Aid in 2021: Another difficult year, but there are green shoots

This year is ending in much the same way that it started for UK aid: The UK’s ODA budget is capped at 0.5% GNI, we are waiting for the UK’s International Development Strategy (IDS), concerns about the UK’s continued commitment to poverty reduction, aid effectiveness principles and transparency remain, and the government continues to prioritise national interest over poverty reduction.

Away from the government’s decisions on UK aid, however, it has also been a year of discovery and reflection, of solidarity and of laying the groundwork for the future.

A year on the defensive for UK aid

This year has been dominated by the fallout from the aid cuts – both the 2020 cuts and the deeper cuts from decision to drop (temporarily) the 0.7% commitment, slicing an estimated £4 billion off the UK aid budget in a matter of months. We may never have the full picture of how the cuts were made or their full impact. The process was dominated by secrecy and silence from the government. The 2021 Statistics for International Development revealed next to nothing, despite statements that they would provide details of the 2020 UK aid cuts. It remains to be seen what we will learn next year, when details of spending for 2021 are published. Even without the full picture, we know that cuts of this magnitude have meant the loss of impactful development programmes.

While the spending review held out the promise of a return to 0.7% GNI ODA budgets, it also kept the high hurdles of the two fiscal tests. With less UK aid to go around, decisions about how ODA is spent are more important than ever. The Integrated Review offered little detail on the government’s international development plans, but what it did say prompted fresh concerns that development assistance would be relegated to a tool for achieving trade, diplomatic and security objectives. Although the references to global poverty reduction and the sustainable development goals were welcome, they rang hollow amid the lack of substance. Several months on, we are still waiting for the promised international development strategy, now expected in the new year.

Ahead of the new strategy, the FCDO’s 2021-22 ODA allocations illustrated just how deep the cuts would go with even strategic priorities facing significant reductions compared with 2019: global health and pandemic response (-40%), humanitarian preparedness and response (-41%) and girls’ education (estimated -25%). Bilateral aid to countries and regions was slashed from £4 billion to around £1.5 billion, with fragile and conflict-affected countries like Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq, and (initially) Afghanistan facing huge cuts.

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On climate change and ODA, the UK’s action was also disappointing. The $100 billion pledge to support countries vulnerable to climate change remains unmet, as is the commitment to spend 50% of climate finance on adaptation. Despite the issue of loss and damage gaining more attention and a few financial commitments being made, the vital finance – promised to communities for whom adaptation is now too late -never materialised. Adding insult to injury, we now know the climate commitments will come from existing (reduced) ODA budgets rather than being additional as stipulated in the Paris Agreement.

Over the course of 2021, we have repeatedly seen this government take decisions that do the least for the most marginalised communities around the world. By counting anything (SDRs, excess vaccine doses, debt relief) that can be reported as ODA under the arbitrary 0.5% GNI ceiling, the UK will benefit at the expense of the world’s poorest. The latest from the Foreign Secretary confirms this approach. Despite positive noises on funding for women and girls and humanitarian crises, her vision is unabashedly one where development and even diplomacy are primarily tools for British commercial interests. The UK aid spending in 2021 revealed that commitments to inclusive development and to ‘Leave No One Behind’ had been sidelined, and the era of ‘aid in the national interest’ is now firmly in place.

Below the surface there are green shoots

We should be proud of how the INGO sector rallied together to oppose the cut to 0.7%, even if it didn’t turn out the way we hoped. It would have been easy to turn inward as NGOs attempted to navigate uncertainty. Instead, we presented a serious challenge to the government’s decision. Bond will continue to rally and convene the sector to oppose the cuts, so the UK returns to 0.7% and spends the ODA helping the people who need it the most.

Beyond 0.7% and the aid cuts, Bond and its members are driving progressive, challenging and innovative work focused on transforming the international development system. This includes work on locally-led development, better funding models, engagement with the anti-racism and decolonising aid movements and reforming the language we use to talk about development. It often seems like we, as a sector, are just reacting to the latest government announcement or defending the status quo. The truth is we are part of global networks and movements that are working with our colleagues from around the world to build a better system.

Recently, we’ve also had more engagement with the FCDO. The public consultation on the IDS, ministerial roundtables on the strategy and their engagement with our deep dives on climate, conflict, locally-led development and sustainable economic development have been welcome. It remains to be seen how the sector’s inputs will translate into the strategy and whether it will draw on the best practices of international development rather than continue the narrow self-interest that has dominated recent years.

2022 is bringing new opportunities to build a better system

The challenges to the current international ‘aid’ system are structural and profound – we need to do things differently. Many of us are unwilling to defend the old, colonial, status quo, but have struggled to rethink our approach and imagine alternative models. This is now happening in various spaces around the world, as well as in the UK.

Next year, through Bond’s Future Dialogues, we want to create a platform for forward thinking. We are bringing together innovators and thinkers from around the world to explore and shape new narratives and models that respond to the challenges we all face. We aren’t looking for a single solution but to seed thinking and practice and build new constituencies for internationalism. The current system needs to change and we all have a role to play in ensuring what comes next is rooted in equity and solidarity.


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