Opinion: UK government is pushing small aid charities to the brink of closure

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, small international aid charities in the U.K. are struggling to survive. Photo by: GoSimpleTax / CC BY

The impact of COVID-19 looks set to devastate lower-income countries, where social distancing among marginalized communities is virtually impossible and health systems are chronically weak. Millions of people, many of whom rely on support from small NGOs working in rural communities, risk being pushed back into poverty.

Since the outbreak began, small NGOs have been busy mounting their response without any additional funding, and few are getting support from the U.K. government.

A survey of 92 NGOs by Bond, a U.K. network for aid organizations, shows that over 50% of smaller U.K.-based international charities are already on the ground but are unable to get the funds needed to help street children in India, for whom “stay at home” messages are meaningless, or to work in rural health centers and outposts or to stop boreholes from becoming sites for the transmission of infection.

UK NGOs 'deeply concerned' about £20M for COVID-19 work in 15 countries

Organizations say they are ready to respond but need the appropriate financing, with one comparing the £20 million allocation to an amount that would typically be provided for emergency response in just a single country.

According to the Small International Development Charities Network, nearly half of these groups expect to close within the next 12 months without urgent financial support. The first small NGO has sadly already fallen: The brilliant Bristol-based African Initiatives, which has supported thousands of women and girls in rural areas of Tanzania for over 20 years, recently announced its closure due to a lack of funding.

Public education, promotion of hand-washing, provision of hand-washing facilities and washable masks — these are the essential kinds of services that small, agile charities with fluent, intimate relationships with overseas counterparts can typically offer at speed.

Yet they are largely sidelined in the U.K. government’s global COVID-19 response, as well as completely omitted from its emergency grants package to help the wider charity sector ride out the lockdown, which was only for those groups working domestically — a double whammy that makes a nonsense of ministers’ praise for small charities and leaves many local communities in developing countries, which otherwise could be getting help, in the lurch.

I have seen ministers try to argue that some of the £200 million ($260 million) package put up by the government for the global COVID-19 response may eventually end up with U.K. charities — once it has wended its way through United Nations agencies and their sometimes clunky mechanisms for selection and distribution.

The Ebola outbreak showed just how drawn out and bureaucratic such procedures can be. It is also particularly difficult for smaller charities to get funding from multilateral agencies.

Why on earth wasn’t more funding earmarked for a wider plurality of small international U.K. charities, whose hallmarks often include agility and speed?

This is all the more disappointing because multiple secretaries of state for international development have issued loud praise for the special contribution of small charities. About a year ago, Penny Mordaunt said “small, innovative organizations doing heroic work” were going to be supported by the government, precisely because “some of the best and most innovative work” in the aid sector is done by these small organizations.

“In every community across the U.K., there are amazing people inventing new ways to solve problems and improve lives. And as I travel around the nation I see pictures of development projects on the walls of offices, pubs, schools, community centres and places of worship. I think there is great strength in helping those Britons connect with the rest of the world,” she said.

How hollow those words sound now.

Why on earth wasn’t more funding earmarked for a wider plurality of small international U.K. charities, whose hallmarks often include agility and speed?

The contribution of smaller aid charities is too important to jettison in this way and is now even more at risk of being sidelined at best — or left to collapse at worst — as the government proceeds to shuffle Whitehall furniture to form the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

It is not just their specific niche skills and contribution to humanitarian and development work. It is also, as Mordaunt attested, their presence in cities, towns, and villages up and down the country, nurturing global awareness and engagement, and abundant networks of personal connection that underpin the soft power of the U.K. in the world.

What a puzzle, what a waste, to see the demise of such multiple engines of international solidarity and influence at the very time that the U.K. is not only trying its best to respond to a worldwide pandemic threatening the lowest-income countries, but also looking to define an ambitious new global role outside the European Union.

The government must urgently turn the situation around for small aid groups by providing more accessible funding solely for small charities already responding to COVID-19 and ensure that cuts to the 2020 overseas aid program do not push the unsung heroes of development into extinction.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Andrew Purkis

    Andrew Purkis is a former trustee and chair of ActionAid and former board member of the Charity Commission.