Exclusive: UK FCDO minister: 'We are not really in a position' to discuss cuts with aid community

James Cleverly, a minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, attending a weekly cabinet meeting at Downing street in London, United Kingdom. Photo by: Hannah McKay / REUTERS

The U.K. government has no plans to engage the development sector on how it is cutting the aid budget, Devex has learned.

James Cleverly, a minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, said until decisions on changing the aid budget were completed, “we are not really in a position where we can talk to the aid community or the development community about what we are going to do.”

The government is currently deciding how cuts to the aid budget — the second round within a year — will land. Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November that the U.K. would only spend 0.5% of gross national income on official development assistance, rather than its legally mandated target of 0.7%. The government has insisted it will return to spending 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows” but has provided no clear indication of when this will be.

The U.K. development sector has been desperately calling for more information on the ongoing budget cuts, and to be engaged in the decision-making process in order to provide advice and to plan for which projects will be impacted. A rare joint statement from NGOs, aid analysts, and transparency campaigners last month condemned the “truly shocking” lack of government transparency on the aid reductions.

Speaking at a meeting of Essex Women’s Institute, Cleverly told Devex that FCDO would make decisions before engaging the development sector on the reductions.

UK NGOs condemn 'truly shocking' lack of government aid transparency

Massive cuts to U.K. aid were announced last year — but major NGOs say they still have little information about what exactly will be cut, and how that could affect their work on the ground.

“We are working through how best to implement the changes that the economic situation has forced on us, and we are doing this in a way that will maximize our ability to be a force for good in the world,” he said. “Once we have completed that process obviously we will explain to the development community what the implications will be.”

Asked if the government has considered taking the advice of NGOs, Cleverly replied: “We are going through a professional process, it's a difficult process, it's a delicate process. We want to do it properly. And once we are in a position where we can speak with some clarity and certainty, to our delivery partners, that’s exactly what we will do.”

Cleverly defended government engagement so far on the latest round of budget cuts, saying shortly after the government announced it would not meet 0.7% aid spending, he and other FCDO ministers “had a round of phone calls about what that might look like.”

“I spoke to a number of both representatives of multilateral organizations, of U.N. agencies and development delivery partners, so the idea that we are not engaging with the sector on this is wrong,” he said, “Because I made those calls.”

But NGOs themselves see it differently. “At best, we are being briefed after the event,” said Steph Draper, chief executive of Bond, the U.K. network for NGOs. “But that isn’t meaningful consultation that results in better outcomes, and this is rarely after any decisions to make cuts are made.”

Draper said development sector consultation on the cuts was “essential to secure better decisions that draw on the expertise that exists across the sector” and ensure their consequences were understood.

Many humanitarian and development programs were already “bearing the brunt of the 2020 cuts,” Draper said. These were made in July as the U.K.’s economy shrank and the value of the national income fell.

“Yet we don’t have clarity about which programs were cut then, nor how decisions on the cuts are being made now, beyond the broad strategy, despite asking multiple times,” continued Draper.

“We now await the government’s response to our FOI request,” she added, referencing the freedom of information inquiry the organization submitted asking for details of the budget cuts announced in July.

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.