James Cleverly delivers a Foreign Policy speech from the Locarno Room at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. Picture by Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street
James Cleverly delivers a Foreign Policy speech from the Locarno Room at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. Picture by Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street

ODA in 2022: leaving the most marginalised behind

In many ways, UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) in 2022 has felt like Groundhog Day.

Due to the reduced amount available thanks to the cut to 0.5%, ODA has been stretched to breaking point to cover increased demands across the government. Poverty and inequality worldwide have continued to grow. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and the deadly food crisis in the Horn of Africa have joined an already long list of humanitarian crises.

Decreasing resources for increasing need has been the recurrent theme of UK ODA over the past few years. A reduced budget means that decisions on how ODA is spent have had significant consequences on people’s lives. The worrying direction of these decisions is the defining takeaway of 2022. What we saw confirmed that this year the quality of UK ODA also seriously declined.

The long-awaited international development strategy (IDS) was published in May with a slimmed-down set of strategic priorities: British investment partnerships; humanitarian response, women and girls, health and climate. The strategy was meant to relaunch the UK as a ‘leader in global development’ following the controversial merger of DFID and the FCDO and the subsequent decision to suspend the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on ODA. Some of its more positive elements include commitments to local ownership, self-determination and working with civil society, as well as the recognition that development is a long-term endeavour. However, the strategy also confirmed the government sees development assistance as a tool to achieve foreign policy objectives, with a greater focus on promoting British interests and a trickle-down approach to development. The touchstone is no longer poverty reduction but economic prosperity, with limited references to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) or the leave no one behind agenda (LNOB).

Read our analysis on the international development strategy

Read Bond’s analysis on what the strategy says and what needs to happen next

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Less than two months after the IDS was published, news outlets reported a freeze on UK ODA, with civil servants told to stop all ‘non-essential’ spending. The spend on hosting refugees was on track to go significantly over the planned budget. Funding for refugees in the UK is ODA eligible under the DAC rules for the first 12 months and has been an increasing portion of the ODA for several years. Estimates suggested the costs in 2022 could reach 25% of the ODA budget. The ‘pause’ was finally lifted in late November, when the government also announced an additional £2.5 billion for refugee hosting costs over the next two years, taking UK ODA over the 0.5% threshold. Even with the additional funding, FCDO’s ODA budget has been reduced by £1.7 bn which will inevitably mean around 30% more cuts across vital humanitarian and development programmes.

Even with ‘lifesaving assistance’ exempt from the pause, the UK’s response to a number of humanitarian emergencies has been muted. Delays in funding for the looming famine in the Horn of Africa have contributed to a global failure of early action. Ukraine is the outlier this year. Since Russia’s invasion, the UK has taken a forward-leaning and generous approach spanning military diplomatic and development support. It represents the best of the UK’s international development approach and shows what is possible with the right kind of political will.

The ‘pause’ and reallocation of funding caused untold disruption and harm for those delivering and partnering with UK programmes. It is a symptom of the UK’s wider approach to its ODA budget, which counts everything that can be counted under the DAC rules. This wasn’t a great approach with the 0.7% ODA target, now it is stretching the ODA budget to breaking point. This is a political choice which means that vital funding for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, funding for global challenges like climate change, and even excess vaccine doses take money away from the people who need it the most around the world.

As critical decisions around ODA prioritisation and spend have been taken, we have seen a continued lack of transparency on these issues. Transparency was notably absent from the International Development Strategy. As we finish the year, we still do not have a published and easily accessible budget for the FCDO’s ODA spend in 2022. Without this, we have a limited understanding of the priorities over the past year and will not be able to hold the government to account or see how their decisions have changed when the final spend is eventually published.

The UK, as a global leader in Official Development Assistance (ODA) transparency, is in decline

Changes in recent years, including the merger of DFID and FCO, Official Development Assistance (ODA) cuts and the new International Development Strategy have resulted in a loss of ODA transparency according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) report published a few weeks ago.

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The government’s new commitments under the Open Government Partnership’s National Action Plan took some steps to improve transparency but were largely a repackaging or dropping of existing commitments. More recently, the new Development Minister’s stated commitment to restoring transparency on ODA and broader development decisions is both reassuring and welcome.

We entered 2022 knowing there would be less ODA. What we hoped was that the remaining finance would be allocated and delivered to those who need support the most, marginalised communities in low-income countries, at its heart. Whilst the lack of transparency means we know little about exactly the plans for ODA in 2022, the little we do know, combined with the recent news that the cuts to ODA in 2021 fell hardest on low-income countries, indicates the UK is not centring poverty or inequality in its decisions around ODA.

We hope that in 2023 we will see the Foreign Secretary and Development Minister take ownership of this problem, redirecting ODA to communities facing poverty, conflict, climate change and injustice, and improving transparency around these decisions and spending.


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