FCDO staff 'in shock' at scale of aid budget cuts

Aid workers unload items in northern Iraq. Photo by: Department for International Development / CC BY

Civil servants in the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office have expressed “shock” at the aid budget reductions they will have to implement, following the government’s decision not to meet the legally mandated spending target of 0.7% of national income.

While the extent of the cuts and where they will fall remain uncertain, it is thought that funding to bilateral programming is likely to be hit severely, with estimates of cuts ranging from 50% to 70%.

The reductions are the second round that the official development assistance budget has suffered in less than a year, following a cut of £2.9 billion in July as the economy shrank.

“Everyone is still in shock at what it will mean,” said one official, who anticipated “big reductions of activities and services [being] delivered.”

“A saving of just 0.2% will disproportionately damage our international reputation in ways that far exceed the minute savings made to the public purse.”

— An FCDO official

“These programs take years to design and make real impacts on poor people’s lives,” the official said.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November that the U.K. would not spend 0.7% of gross national income in 2021 and would instead contribute just 0.5% of GNI. The reductions amount to a loss of 30% compared with the 2019 ODA budget — £4.5 billion — and were announced with just several months before they had to be implemented.

Another official described the cuts as a “shocker.” The picture was still “pretty uncertain … but the net result will be cuts across the board with some sectors hit harder than others. … The impact will be harsh on many of the poorest people we serve and comes at a time of mounting risks,” the source said.

The official also described an unsettled FCDO, which only began operating in September after the merger of the Department for International Development and Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

“Morale [is] not great — as you can imagine — as these cuts come on top of what’s been a pretty bruising 2020. No end in sight and unclear whether what the long term looks like. Feels pretty bleak at the moment,” the source said.

The official added: “As ever, staff will work with what we have and try and make the best choices possible to mitigate the harm. … A saving of just 0.2% will disproportionately damage our international reputation in ways that far exceed the minute savings made to the public purse.”

Planning to miss UK 0.7% aid spend target is 'unlawful,' says former solicitor general

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is breaking the law by missing development spending targets, according to a former senior government lawyer.

The legality of preemptively missing the 0.7% target remains in question. Edward Garnier, a former senior government lawyer, recently advised the International Development Committee of politicians that such a move would currently be “unlawful.” The government is due to bring new development legislation, but it is not known what its scope will be or when it will happen. Whether the legislation will be voted into law at all is another open question, as a parliamentary rebellion is expected.

FCDO did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Devex.

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.