New DFID funding for East Africa crisis welcomed, raises questions

Cartons of InstaPaste, a nutrient-enriched peanut paste used to treat children suffering from acute malnutrition are loaded onto a truck in Nairobi, Kenya, as part of a consignment bound for distribution by UNICEF in Somalia. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel this week announced a 90 million British pounds ($114 million) commitment to Somalia and Ethiopia, where famine threatens almost 14 million people.

The news brings the U.K.’s total contribution to the East Africa crisis to 321 million pounds ($405 million) so far this year.

However, some in Africa’s aid community reported hearing rumors of cuts to Africa country budgets to cover the crisis, and asked why a portion of the latest funds has been drawn from Ethiopia’s country budget, rather than crisis reserves. The Department for International Development then clarified to Devex that Africa country budgets and will not be reduced to cover the crisis, and that current country programmes in Africa are not currently at risk for cuts.

As a food security crisis engulfs the region — with famine already declared in parts of South Sudan — Somalia is facing the threat of a third famine in 25 years. Ethiopia is suffering severe drought.

During a trip to East Africa, Patel announced 60 million pounds ($76 million) in new funds to Somalia, allocated from the Department for International Development’s general budget for 2017; and a 30 million pounds ($38 million) allocation for Ethiopia to counter the effects of drought and lack of access to food and water, drawn from the Ethiopia country budget for the 2017/18 financial year. The Ethiopia funds, already committed to the country, will now be earmarked for emergency food and water; nutritional support; livestock support; and mobile teams to provide child protection, support victims of sexual violence and help internally displaced people and their host communities.

Ethiopia is the second-largest recipient of U.K. aid after Pakistan, and hosts the fourth-largest population of refugees.

While the funds are much needed, some in the aid community in Africa believe the announcement gives credence to worries that the U.K. Department for International Development plans to redirect funds from country budgets typically available for bidding to cover the mounting crises, rather than drawing on crisis reserves. DFID, however, attempted to put their fears to rest.

“We are hearing of potential DFID funding cuts to African country budgets to pay for an increase in support to Eastern Africa famine and conflict situations,” an aid worker in Africa, who did not wish to be named for professional reasons, told Devex via email.

Others have expressed frustration at the lack of information provided by DFID about the future of the country offices and their budgets — which account for more than half of all funding from DFID — according to the agency’s most recent Bilateral Aid Review.

“In Ethiopia, it is important that money is made available to help people cope with the immediate effects of drought,” Mike Noyes, head of humanitarian response at ActionAid told Devex.

“However taking this from long term funding will only mean that people, disproportionately women, will remain vulnerable into the future. Emergency response funding is vital, but should not be at the costs of development and resilience building.”

But DFID explained that in Ethiopia’s case, there is flexibility in the country budget to cover the emergency costs without cutting current funding to longer-term development projects.

“It is untrue to say we have cut Africa country budgets this year to fund the humanitarian response in East Africa,” a DFID spokesperson told Devex.

Speaking directly to the rumoured cuts, the spokesperson explained that the new humanitarian funds for Ethiopia won’t result in any cuts to current programmes.

The news comes amid some uncertainty around the future of DFID’s country offices, which recently undertook reforms to improve financial management.

DFID is often praised for its unique decentralized funding structure, which gives more flexibility to country offices to manage their budgets, sustaining multi-year projects in a range of sectors with a range of organizations. But as the agency approaches its goal of spending half of all aid in fragile states, it is now looking at managing more operations remotely to better handle the complexity of those contexts, as well consolidating some operations with nearby consulates and embassies.

Concerns that certain countries will see their budgets reduced to cover crises as they arise fits with the new focus on more agile funding for emergencies, as well as with recommendations from the Independent Commission on Aid Impact that DFID centralize financial risk management of fragile country budgets.

At the same time, DFID officials tried to alleviate concerns by pointing out that in a crisis, DFID can always lean on the crisis reserves allocated by country.

This was the case during the conflict in South Sudan last year for example, when DFID drew on the country’s 200 million pounds ($253 million) crisis reserves to provide humanitarian assistance, thus protecting the country’s general budget and the ongoing development programmes reliant on those funds.

During a parliamentary session on South Sudan last year, former Permanent Secretary for International Development Mark Lowcock said the principle of crisis reserves is that, “depending on the need, that money will be available.”

It is unclear why DFID has withdrawn money from the country budget rather than crisis reserves in the case of Ethiopia.

A DFID press release notes that it is working closely with the Ethiopian government — which provided more than $700 million during the 2016 drought — to ensure the government plans their own support effectively. The agency also said it is working with partners UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization and various non-governmental organizations to respond to the crises.

This article was updated on June 21, 2017 to include a response by the U.K. Department for International Development provided after the article’s publication.

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.