Exclusive: Girls' education hit as UK small charities funding 'wiped out'

Syrian refugee children attend a lesson in a temporary classroom in Lebanon. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

A program educating girls who were forced into domestic labor in Bangladesh is among the latest victims of the United Kingdom’s aid cuts, as funding to small charities was confirmed as being “wiped out” Friday, according to development professionals.

Under a project run by the UK Bangladesh Education Trust, Bangladeshi girls working as domestic helpers were matched with local teachers who gave them mentoring and an education to improve their confidence and life chances.

The U.K. government has identified girls’ schooling as a development priority and has said it wants to ensure all girls receive 12 years of quality education, as well as get 40 million more girls into primary and secondary school by 2025.

“The government has wiped out support for small charities by pulling the SCCF and Community Partnerships grant and let down the sector.”

— Claire Collins, trustee, Small International Development Charities Network

The trust received a letter from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office on Tuesday saying the Reach, Teach, Transform Lives program would no longer receive funding, alongside every other organization set to receive money from the Small Charities Challenge Fund. Small charities, those with a turnover of less than £1 million ($1.38 million), make up 95% of the roughly 10,000 organizations in the U.K. international development sector, according to the Small International Development Charities Network.

FCDO officials also told NGOs in meetings Friday that a host of other funds — which the government had agreed to support financially — would no longer be going ahead. The Community Partnerships fund, UK Aid Connect, UK Aid Direct Impact, and UK Partnerships for Health Systems programs have all been canceled entirely, according to NGOs set to receive money through them.

The funds, which dealt with relatively small amounts of money, were valued by NGOs because they funded innovative programs such as that run by the UK Bangladesh Education Trust and directly reached civil society in lower-income countries.

“The government has wiped out support for small charities by pulling the SCCF and Community Partnerships grant and let down the sector, which will have a huge impact on the sector and the communities we support,” said Claire Collins, a trustee at the Small International Development Charities Network.

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She added: “When COVID hit, we reached out for support for small international development charities because there was just nothing. We were pointed to the Small Charities Challenge Fund. … Only a month ago, FCDO were encouraging small charities to actually apply to this fund.” Small NGOs have been hit especially hard by the economic fallout from the pandemic, and it is feared many will close.

As the UK Bangladesh Education Trust had been told FCDO funding was forthcoming — the U.K. government has historically been seen as a reliable partner — it did not pursue the private fundraising it typically carries out, for the first time in the organization’s 30-year history. As a result, the entire organization is now under threat, according to Annette Zera, chair of trustees at the charity.

Despite the “very arduous” process of applying, the trust was “overjoyed” when the funding — just £50,000 across two years — was approved in 2020 to expand a two-year trial, according to Zera. It was told ministers would sign off on the funding in January 2021, which was then delayed until April after the cut to U.K. aid spending was announced. The trust was given assurances by FCDO consultants that the funding would be forthcoming and was just awaiting a formal signoff, but it later heard nothing.

“Child labor is competely hidden, and as far as we’re aware, there is no other organization in Bangladesh … that have actually managed a successful intervention and stop girls having to work, that have actually taught children to read and write while they were working,” said Zera.

Half of the girls taught under the program were able to stop working in the past year, with the teachers moving on to new girls once their former students left domestic labor. Even those who remain in the program become literate and “so much better equipped for life,” said Zera.

“It was fantastic to be able to think we were secure. … Our charity have been undermined by the government, who have written to me after complete silence,” said Zera. She added: “It’s hugely damaging to the children who believe that they are going to have a new future. … It’s very bad behavior and no way to run any kind of ship.”

Zera is now pursuing private donations in a bid to keep the trust afloat but said the financial environment is difficult.

UK Aid Direct, previously worth £150 million, has helped 4.5 million people in 37 countries, according to government figures. The Small Charities Challenge Fund provides smaller grants and has given out over £3.2 million since it began in 2017.

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As for the other funds canceled Friday, a UK Aid Impact Grant that funds a pre-primary education program in Tanzania — run by NGO Children in Crossfire — was given 90 days to close. The same notice period was given to reproductive health programs working in Kenya, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, run by NGOs Minority Rights Group International and Health Poverty Action. Water and sanitation projects across Africa and Asia are similarly believed to have been told to close.

Under the UK Aid Connect fund, a reproductive health program run by CARE International UK and MSI Reproductive Choices was closed as well.

Many other programs are also believed to have been affected.

FCDO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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 william.worley@devex.com.