Aid transparency fails, 'Stop Soros' passes, and Oxfam plans budget cuts: This week in development

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office main building in London. Photo by: FCO / CC BY

A tale of two departments on U.K. aid transparency, Hungary’s parliament makes “Stop Soros” the law, and France faces backlash over a controversial humanitarian aid conference. This week in development:

The European Commission is proposing to bring all of its foreign affairs spending under a single instrument, but one apparent omission has rattled development advocates — the goal of “poverty eradication” is nowhere to be found. The article that lays out the goals of the proposed new instrument speaks about fostering “dialogue and cooperation,” supporting democracy and human rights, and crisis response. Development leaders told Devex that the proposal’s failure to list ending poverty as a clear European Commission goal threatens to “subsume” development under other foreign affairs priorities such as addressing migration and border security. “If the aim is development, poverty eradication, and the Sustainable Development Goals, where are they?” said Jonathan Beger, director of EU advocacy at World Vision EU.

Oxfam Great Britain plans to make $21.2 million in cuts as a result of funding shortfalls stemming from the organization’s sexual abuse scandal. The charity lost 1 in 10 of its regular, individual donors as a result of revelations that its employees sexually exploited beneficiaries during the Haiti earthquake response. It also saw institutional donors including the U.K. Department for International Development suspend its right to bid for awards. “We are cutting head office and support functions to ensure that we can continue with the majority of our life-saving and life-changing work on the ground,” an Oxfam spokesperson told Devex. Meanwhile, new allegations have surfaced against Médecins Sans Frontières, with former employees charging that some MSF staff regularly solicited prostitutes.

The United Kingdom’s foreign office is among the least transparent aid donors in the world, according to the most recent Aid Transparency Index, released this week by Publish What You Fund. The department earned a grade of “poor,” ranking 40th out of 45 donors, while its aid-focused counterpart, DFID, drew a “very good” assessment at number three. The discrepancy added more fuel to the debate about the U.K.’s cross-government aid spending strategy, which already sees more than one-quarter of U.K. aid spent outside of DFID and aims to grow that to one-third by 2020. The Asian Development Bank drew the top spot in this year’s ranking, with the United Nations Development Programme and DFID rounding out the top three. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation was ranked fifth, with a “very good” assessment, and the U.S. Agency for International Development recorded a “good” assessment, coming in at 16th. China’s ministry of commerce was judged the least transparent donor.

The French government is under pressure over its plans to co-host a conference on humanitarian access in Yemen next week with Saudi Arabia — just as Saudi Arabia is waging an assault on the city of Hodeida, which threatens to make access impossible and send the beleaguered country deeper into crisis. “It’s difficult to understand that France would co-organize an event with one of the parties to the conflict, which is right now attacking civilians and at the same time trying to present itself as a key humanitarian actor,” said Fanny Petitbon, advocacy manager for CARE France. Key partners working on Yemen have also expressed concern that they have received no information about what the conference agenda will include.

The U.S. will withdraw from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, following an announcement by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Tuesday. Haley asserted that the U.S. will not retreat from human rights commitments, but that those same commitments prohibit participation in a “hypocritical, self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” Human rights organizations have broadly condemned the Trump administration’s decision, charging that countries with worse human rights records could fill the void — and that it could be harder for NGOs to advocate for human rights issues.

President Donald Trump threatened to cut off foreign aid to countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle, which he claimed, without evidence, are “sending” illegal migrants to the United States. While Trump’s proposals — like all of the aid budget proposals he’s submitted so far — is likely to run into a wall of opposition from the U.S. Congress, it did put the president’s USAID administrator in an uncomfortable position when he testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Administrator Mark Green was unable to answer lawmakers’ questions about how USAID’s work in Central America addresses the root causes of migration — since doing so would have undermined Trump’s position. Green’s testimony comes as the USAID chief is seeking congressional approval for a reorganization plan he hopes to implement at the agency. On Thursday, the White House released a detailed overview of its reform ideas, which included the changes that Green has sought to implement.

Hungary’s parliament has passed a package of laws called “Stop Soros,” which criminalizes organizations working in support of migrants and asylum-seekers. Prime Minister Viktor Orban made the proposal — which civil society groups have described for months as an “existential threat” to their operations — a central part of his reelection campaign this spring. Orban’s party has vilified Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, prompting the Open Society Foundations, which Soros founded to promote democratic institutions, to announce it will leave Budapest and relocate to Berlin.

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.