LONDON — On Thursday, the U.K. government quietly released a letter describing the extent of the cuts the aid sector knew were coming.
“We have identified a £2.9bn [$3.7 billion] package of reductions in the Government’s planned ODA spend so we can proceed prudently for the remainder of 2020,” wrote Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is set to lead the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office when it opens in September.
The U.K. aid budget is set at 0.7% of gross national income. With the economy set to tank, many in the sector were already preparing to tighten their belts.
But the decision to slash the budget by nearly 20% — outstripping the projected economic drop for 2020 — and to do so halfway through the year, affecting projects that are already running, caused some shock, especially amid a pandemic when the government has acknowledged how much global development progress is at stake.
The almost 20% ODA cut comes as the U.K. grapples with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The scale of the cuts is “surprising,” according to Sara Pantuliano, chief executive of the Overseas Development Institute think tank. “It also contrasts markedly with other funders, for example Germany, which is increasing development spending, and France, which is ring fencing it,” she added.
“At £2.9bn, cuts would bring aid spending below 0.7 percent if current economic forecasts are right,” explained Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, in an email. “The exercise appears designed to ensure UK aid spending doesn't rise a penny above 0.7 percent of GNI even if the economy contracts more than expected over the year as a whole.”
Kenny described the decision as “another assault on UK global leadership in development cooperation.”
The planned cuts involve “underspends, delaying activity and stopping some spend,” Raab wrote. He added, “It will see some reductions made now, with arrangements in place to tailor spending further during the remaining months as we start to gain a clearer economic picture.”
Remaining spending will prioritize poverty reduction; climate change and reversing biodiversity loss; girls’ education; the COVID-19 response; campaigning on issues such as media freedom; and protecting the U.K.'s “science and research and development base,” according to the letter.
Cutting government department’s budgets halfway through the year has been done before, though it is unclear whether it has ever been done at this scale. Swathes of reductions announced by Chancellor George Osborne in 2010 to government departments averaged 3.6%.
“This hasn’t been transparent or consultative, that’s been very clear to us,” said Katherine Nightingale, head of advocacy and policy at CARE International UK. “That kind of lack of transparency and accountability has been really difficult for our work and difficult for the programs that are trying to deal with so much uncertainty right now,” she added.
“We don't yet know where the funding cuts will be because the government has not been consulting with those delivering the programs,” Nightingale said, adding: “We understand that [DFID] staff have been told not to consult with the people delivering programs.”
Indecision over extending programs exacerbates the difficulty of working in unpredictable environments and retaining skilled staff, according to Nightingale. She added that uncertainty has also caused a “huge lack of flexibility and funding provision for the impact of COVID” — supposedly a protected area.
A contractor managing a DFID project in the Middle East, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that “It has a material impact on people’s jobs, projects can employ upwards of 100 people, if it’s closed by DFID all those people are made redundant.” They added: “The wider Middle East is being cut quite savagely, but I think sub-Saharan Africa has taken the biggest hit.”
Some programs have received strong hints that they will be killed off entirely. The Oxford Policy Fellowship, a technical advisory program that embeds lawyers with governments that require support for two years, will have to withdraw fellows from their postings, according to Kari Selander, who founded the program.
DFID has been the program's primary funder for the past few years, and the department’s support has not brought just financial benefits. The senior responsible officers were amazing, Selander said.
“They didn’t just want to tick a box with us … they wanted to have actual conversations with us about the substance of the work,” Selander said, adding that DFID’s support also enabled the program to make valuable connections with others in the field and improve its monitoring and evaluation.
But now, the fellowship is expecting to withdraw 10 fellows halfway through their posts, and another 11 pre-selected will never be deployed. A handful of fellows will continue until September. This will likely have an impact on the U.K.’s reputation as a donor, according to Selander. “The only thing we reasonably can tell our government partners is ‘DFID can’t fund us anymore,’” Selander said.
Selander continued: “The U.K. government got a lot of really good reputational dividend from this project because it was seen as just so understanding of what the host country governments are going through. I can only imagine disappointment in that relationship.”
While a relatively small project, it was a life’s work for a devastated Selander, who said: “There will be a lot of stories like this.”
Canceling commitments with short notice halfway through the year “destroys the partnership in lots of those countries where they have DFID offices,” the Middle East contractor said. They added: “They’ve built those partnerships over years and years of engagement, a lot of programs have been running for 10-15 years in various iterations. And so it really starts to affect the credibility of the U.K. in this space.”
“Good aid is meant to support governments, deliver on development, and work in support of national budgets,” Kenny added. “If promised aid doesn't arrive that can stymie government plans. The U.K. will have made commitments to spend much of this money — to provide the finance or services. People will have been relying on those commitments and in a crisis that has already caused so much volatility and created challenges to delivery, the UK is making the problem even worse,” he added.
Even if the economy recovers in 2021, and the value of 0.7% increases, the harm to U.K. aid may have already been done.
“It’s doubtful that potential increases next year could repair the damage done by the cuts,” said Rachael Calleja, senior research associate at the Centre for Global Development. “Ultimately, it suggests a short-term approach to thinking about development in terms of pounds and pence, over sustained partnerships and impact.”