UK aid cuts: ‘tragic blow’ as opaque numbers signal big reductions


The UK has released the first details of how it intends to impose as much as £4bn worth of cuts to international aid, prompting campaigners to accuse the government of having “lost its moral compass”.

The long-awaited statement on planned spending for 2021-22 did not fully spell out future commitments for specific countries or programmes, but its new classifications for how it plans to distribute £8.1bn in aid imply massive reductions in key areas.

The only cut specified by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was a 90% reduction in a small programme to China now worth only £0.9m. Instead tables were produced showing how much the government would spend in priority areas, but with no comparable figures for how much spending had occurred under these classifications previously.

The announcement covers only FCDO overseas development spending, or 80% of total official development assistance.

An alliance of more than 200 UK NGOs described the figures released on Wednesday evening as “a tragic blow for many of the world’s most marginalised people”.

Save the Children said the government had lost its moral compass, calculating that the figures showed the girls’ education spend of £400m was down by a quarter from 2019, when it was £536m, and by 6% from last year, when it was £424m. In 2019, the latest year for which a detailed breakdown is available, the top two sectors to receive bilateral, overseas aid were humanitarian aid, at £ 1.5bn and health, at £1.41bn, compared with £906m and £1.305bn announced on Wednesday.

The poverty lobbying group the One Campaign produced similar figures.

The former Conservative international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said: “These words hide the most draconian cuts ever made by Britain and they affect many countries where Britain has a deep and abiding relationship. There are little details but we know the cuts are close to 50%. This is a statement that should have been made to MPs in the Commons rather than slipped out at the end of the day in a written statement.”

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, will be cross-examined on the cuts at a meeting of the international development select committee on Thursday. Raab said in his written statement: “The resulting portfolio marks a strategic shift, putting our aid budget to work alongside our diplomatic network, our science and technology expertise and our economic partnerships in tackling global challenges.

“We will focus on core HMG priorities for poverty reduction, including getting more girls into school, providing urgent humanitarian support to those who need it most, and tackling global threats like climate change, Covid recovery and other international health priorities.”

He said half of the UK bilateral aid programme would be spent in Africa and nearly 40 countries would benefit from the UK’s investment in girls.

The listed priority areas in the statement include girls’ education (£400m), Covid and global health (£1,305), climate change and diversity (£534m), humanitarian preparedness and response (£906m), open societies and conflict (£419m), trade and economic development (£491m), programmes with cross-cutting themes (£1,940m) international subscriptions (£1,219m) and financial transactions (£863m).

The FCDO said detailed figures for individual countries were not normally released until later in the year. The opaque presentation of the figures at a time of such large cuts is likely to be seen as in stark contrast to the spirit of openness of the Department for International Development, which was shut down by Boris Johnson last year and merged with the Foreign Office.

The cuts are required by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office after the Treasury decided to break a Conservative manifesto commitment, ditching the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, instead cutting the figure to 0.5%.

The statement had been expected earlier in the year. Many aid agencies have been waiting anxiously for the details as they prepare to cut individual programmes and lay off staff.

Ministers in the previous year cut aid due to the reduction in the size of the economy, meaning the cuts amount to a reduction of a third of the UK aid budget over two years.

The Labour MP Sarah Champion, chair of the international development committee, said: “To sneak out a written statement at the end of the day shows a lack of respect for both parliament scrutinising these cuts and the aid organisations that are hearing about the spend for the first time only now.

“To say the statement is scant on detail is an understatement. Whilst we now have limited understanding on the areas the government is prioritising for its shrinking aid pot, we are still awaiting guidance on country-by-country allocations. People’s lives are directly impacted by these decisions and it is shocking that they still don’t have clarity they need.”

Kevin Watkins, the chief executive of Save the Children, said: “The government has lost its moral compass. UK aid for humanitarian response has been cut by almost half since the pandemic and girls’ education, despite being a stated priority of the prime minister, by a quarter.

“The health budget, which they have cut by 14% from last year, includes an increase in funding for Covid-19. They are financing Covid by cutting child health and nutrition programmes that will cost lives.”



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