Brexit day: UK aid community grapples with life outside Europe

An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds British and European flags during a protest in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by: REUTERS / Francois Lenoir

LONDON — Experts are anticipating a loss of influence and effectiveness for both British and European aid as Brexit finally becomes a reality Friday.

While there is consensus that development cooperation between the European Union and the United Kingdom should continue, huge questions remain over how that will be enacted by political leaders who must contend with higher-priority issues such as trade, security, and migration as they negotiate a future relationship during the 11-month transition period that starts Feb. 1.

“If DFID will not continue to put U.K. [official development assistance] through [ECHO], will they develop an alternative funding mechanism for the U.K. humanitarian sector?”

— Dominic Brain, head of program development and funding, Christian Aid

U.K. civil society organizations are also concerned over Brexit’s impact on funding streams and how relationships with European counterparts will develop in the new political landscape.

“We were able to multiply our efforts as a result of working with Europe, and they were able to multiply their efforts by working with us,” said Simon Maxwell, a development commentator and former chair of the European Think Tanks Group. “Both sides will be weakened by the fact Brexit has happened.”

Mikaela Gavas, co-director of the Europe program at the Center for Global Development, was equally blunt. “I’m not very optimistic ... The U.K. is going to lose a substantial amount of its influence, not only among the European donors, but also in international discussions, such as the COP [climate negotiations] coming up in Glasgow,” she said.

“It was the team EU approach, whereby they all stood together in a common position, pushing for progressive development that made the big difference, that paved the way for a successful outcome on the 2030 Agenda,” she added.

Marta Foresti, director of the Overseas Development Institute Europe, agreed the U.K. “stands to lose influence” in areas where the European Commission is the most important development actor, including the Sahel and North Africa. These are “critical” regions geopolitically but “the U.K. will be out of the conversation,” she said.

Also looming is the anticipated reform of government departments as part of the “Global Britain” post-Brexit agenda, which could include the ending of the Department for International Development’s status as a ministerial department — further impacting its reach and influence.

U.K. civil society organizations — some having already suffered because of Brexit — will now have to navigate a new and unpredictable political landscape.

“We don’t know enough to be pessimistic or optimistic, there's still so many unknowns,” said Sandra Martinsone, policy manager at Bond, the network for U.K. NGOs.

Brexit’s impact on funding has long been a key concern. While some NGOs, including Christian Aid, intend to apply for EU money throughout the transition period, the situation after Dec. 31 is currently unknown.

Martinsone said: “Right now, there is not enough clarity on whether U.K. civil society organizations should apply for the new round of the ECHO [EU humanitarian] funding this year and whether U.K. NGOs will be eligible to apply for Framework Partnership Agreements under the next 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework.”

The deadline for ECHO funding is in June, and missing this would mean NGOs are locked out of ECHO grants for seven years. There is somewhat less pressure for development funding through the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, DEVCO, which runs until the end of 2020.

“We would ask the U.K. government to seek clarity on the eligibility of U.K. [international] NGOS for future ECHO funds,” Martinsone added. 

However, in an evidence session in the House of Lords on Thursday, her colleague Stephanie Draper, CEO at Bond, was more pessimistic. “We have already lost £160 million as a sector from less access to ECHO in the U.K.,” she said, and “we think that cooperation … [with ECHO] is not going to be possible going forward.”

She added that "the anxiety is really in the medium-sized and smaller organizations ... who are normally more reliant on restricted funds, so they work on the basis of grants. But they also bring a lot of innovation and creativity to the sector. They are still dealing with that uncertainty and looking at how [they can] flex their funding models.”

There were other calls for the U.K. government to do more to help.

“We would really like DFID to come out in support of the U.K.’s world-class humanitarian sector, both those agencies that are directly operational [on the ground] and those that work through national partners promoting localization and the ‘Grand Bargain,’” said Dominic Brain, head of program development and funding at Christian Aid. “If DFID will not continue to put U.K. [official development assistance] through [ECHO], will they develop an alternative funding mechanism for the U.K. humanitarian sector?”

There are ongoing questions about whether the U.K. can or will continue spending aid funds through EU channels — in part because of a lack of clarity over what is possible under EU rules, especially if the EU pushes ahead with planned reforms to its funding channels, which could affect whether third countries are able to contribute.

Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, Jane Edmondson, director of DFID's East and Central Africa Division, told a committee that government ministers would ultimately decide if aid continues to be funded through EU channels, based on "what makes sense in terms of value for money."

Some also said DFID should help NGOs shoulder the burden of risk around currency fluctuations. The falling value of the British pound has significantly increased operational costs for many U.K.-based organizations since the vote for Brexit.

Other ramifications are harder to measure. In addition to questions on how U.K. NGOs — as well as the government — will exercise influence over EU policy after Brexit, the lack of a U.K. voice could weaken European civil society overall, Martinsone told Devex.

She added: “There will be an impact on our intelligence, learning, and experience sharing with other NGOs in the EU that has been happening all these years ... That will be a loss on both sides.”

There are silver linings. ODI’s Foresti said U.K. influence is likely to be unhindered by Brexit in places where it has long established influence, such as former colonies in the Commonwealth.

The U.K.’s current status as a development powerhouse also means it is in Europe’s interest to “keep the U.K. close,” Gavas said, particularly financially, in order to “increase its firepower.”

It remains to be seen what form such a future relationship will take — structured and formal, or loose and informal.

But any “friction” in other aspects of the U.K’s withdrawal negotiations, such as trade, could also spill over into development, Gavas warned.

The U.K. and EU share similar development aims, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and Sustainable Development Goals. But how these targets can or will be delivered collaboratively post-Brexit is still undecided.

“Even though there is certainty the U.K. is leaving the EU, there is still much uncertainty ahead,” Christian Aid’s Brain concluded.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at