A 'stealth' UK aid review, COVID-19 funding delays, and UNGA's update: This week in development

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The United Nations General Assembly hall. Photo by: North Atlantic Treaty Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

Whistleblowers raise alarms about a “stealth” U.K. aid review, U.S. pandemic funding struggles to get out the door, and the United Nations makes history. This week in development:

A U.K. aid watchdog has accused the leader of the country’s development agency of carrying out a “stealth review” of U.K. aid and development policy, amid ongoing concerns about potential funding cuts and the Department for International Development’s independence. The government had already planned — and temporarily paused — an integrated review of its international policies. But Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, cited whistleblowers to allege that Secretary of State for International Development Anne-Marie Trevelyan has been moving forward with her own review without the Parliament’s knowledge. Champion also said that she was informed of a decision to freeze all but 200 of DFID’s future programs and of an expectation that DFID will disproportionately absorb cuts to U.K. official development assistance. The country’s budget for aid is pegged at 0.7% of gross national income, and with projections of a significant economic decline due to the coronavirus, many expect the aid budget will follow. Trevelyan did not deny the review but responded, “We are … because of the likely drop in GNI having to assess across the board how we will manage the 0.7 [budget] in the coming year and we are working across government to make sure that we do that as effectively as possible.” DFID had previously informed partners that it would be pausing some decisions on aid spending as a result of the pandemic’s economic fallout, noting that it would prioritize “lifesaving aid” and efforts to respond to COVID-19.

The U.S. government has struggled to get international COVID-19 funding out the door, according to a report in The New York Times. Of $1.59 billion appropriated to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development for international pandemic response efforts by the U.S. Congress, only $386 million had been released by June 3. Of that, only $11.5 million had been obligated from USAID’s International Disaster Assistance account, which is meant to deliver rapid crisis response funding. People who spoke to the Times described problems with micromanagement and delayed funding decisions, partly brought on by the White House’s hesitancy to approve purchases of personal protective equipment out of concern over shortages inside the U.S. On Monday, USAID released its long-awaited guidance on PPE, or “covered materials.” In general, USAID’s partners must still seek prior written approval before purchasing face masks, surgical gloves, ventilators, and “COVID-19 test kits produced in the United States or meant for the United States market,” among other materials. However, the new guidance allows implementing partners to use USAID funding to buy these supplies from any source if they are for the protection of staff employed under USAID grants and contracts. Partners can also use funds to purchase these materials for other programmatic purposes — such as the protection of beneficiaries — if those supplies are manufactured locally or regionally and “are not, and could not reasonably be expected to be, meant for the United States market.”

World leaders will not gather for the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, due to the coronavirus. This marks the first time in the history of the organization — which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year — that the global gathering will not take place in person. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, president of UNGA, told reporters that an in-person gathering would be impossible since leaders travel with such large delegations but that he anticipates an announcement in the next two weeks of an alternative arrangement for heads of state to deliver their planned speeches on pressing global issues. While the 75th UNGA, now likely to be held remotely, was meant to be a moment of celebration for the international organization, it will instead have to contend with an unprecedented global crisis. This week, the World Bank increased its estimate of the pandemic’s toll, projecting that COVID-19 will push 71 million people into extreme poverty — with a downside projection of 100 million.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.