Exclusive: NGOs say FCDO gagging them on aid cuts

South Sudanese refugees receive U.K. aid-provided blankets at the Imvepi reception center in Uganda. Photo by: Robert Oxley / DFID / CC BY

The British government is blocking some development organizations from talking publicly or with other organizations about the impact of the aid budget cuts on their programs, NGO leaders have claimed.

Threats over remaining funding and closure costs have been used to keep some NGOs quiet, even as their budgets were slashed, NGO executives told Devex. Sources all spoke anonymously to avoid jeopardizing their professional relationships with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

“They don’t want to incur the FCDO wrath by going public I suppose if they can at least recoup something!”

— Chief executive of one NGO

Development campaigners branded the claims “incredibly concerning” and highlighted the importance of scrutinizing the aid budget.

The allegations come after repeated and widespread accusations against the government from development staffers who allege poor transparency and handling of the aid cuts process, with many NGOs left in limbo over their financial futures.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November 2020 that the U.K. government would move away from the legally enshrined aid spending target of 0.7% of national income to 0.5%. The government has insisted the move is temporary but has not provided details on when the 0.7% target will be restored.

“We were asked not to share it [aid cuts information] publicly,” wrote the chief executive of one NGO, who said it made him “sick and angry.” “I think people may be reluctant because they could still get some money from close-out costs. We are also in the process of negotiating that.”

NGO costs from January to March are also paid in arrears, according to the executive, who said “that is where I suppose most of us are caught on.” The person continued: “As such contracts are reneged and budgets reduced. They don’t want to incur the FCDO wrath by going public I suppose if they can at least recoup something!”

“It is sad that the NGOs are living in such fear even though facing such huge challenges,” the chief executive added.

Another NGO executive, whose charity is part of a consortium, wrote to Devex that a colleague in a partner organization who interacted with FCDO officials told him: “FCDO said we should not engage with the press as it could affect fund allocations! I’m not sure where that came from in FCDO, or how high up … But obviously more outrageous and sinister the more senior it was, and the more organised and deliberate.”

Another executive said FCDO officials were not being communicative and “we haven't been able to get much out of people [from other organizations] because they [FCDO] are closing down all communications with everyone because of the cuts.”

The executive added: “The really interesting thing is they are telling everyone different things —  what they think they want to hear so nobody knows what's going on … it seems like either there is so much confusion in cuts process, that no one even in FCDO knows what's going on, or the really cynical take is, are they doing on purpose, because it makes it harder to oppose them?”

FCDO declined to comment.

“These reports are incredibly concerning,” said Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, the network for U.K. NGOs. “The process for both making and communicating decisions around the aid cuts has been problematic at best. Charities should be free to speak out about the scale of the cuts, and the devastating impact they are going to have on people facing disease, poverty, conflict and climate change. Policy makers and the public need to understand the serious implications of this political decision.”

While not all organizations Devex spoke to have been gagged by FCDO, the transparency of the aid cuts process is a near-universal concern in the U.K. development sector. Staffers have said clarity is required to gauge the impact of the financial changes and for planning purposes, but the impact of the reductions remains unclear after many months.

While the government has insisted that official decisions have not been made, many organizations have been asked to engage in reduction preparation exercises, which have caused severe disruption and delays to programs. A new financial year for aid, in which government funds will be allocated, begins in April. But big cuts are expected to be revealed before then, as the U.K. participates in a pledging conference for Syria on March 29-30.

A first round of cuts took place in July 2020 as the U.K.’s gross national income contracted — devaluing the 0.7% spending target — amid the early stages of the pandemic. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact later found government officials withheld information about the cuts from NGOs and other organizations as they decided what would be affected.

A freedom of information request Bond made in January to obtain more information about 2020’s cuts was rejected in February.

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.