UK aid fell by £712M in 2020, government statistics show

U.K. aid shelter kits for people who lost their homes in remote parts of Nepal. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

The United Kingdom’s aid budget fell by £712 million in 2020 compared with 2019 — a drop of nearly 5%, according to government statistics.

Last year, total spending on official development assistance, or ODA — which was then still tied to 0.7% of national income — was £14.5 billion.

The value of the aid budget declined as the country’s economy shrank amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the reductions were less than feared after the government announced in July that it would identify aid cuts of £2.9 billion.

Development finance analysts have struggled to learn which programs were impacted and have complained about poor government transparency. The latest “provisional” report, released Thursday, will be followed by a final report in autumn, which NGOs hope will provide clarity on what was affected by the budget cuts last year.

But campaigners said the information should be provided sooner. “The provisional aid statistics have proven to be a missed opportunity for the government to provide more transparency around their aid spending and the 2020 aid cuts,” said Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond, the network for U.K. NGOs.

In February, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office denied a Freedom of Information request filed by Bond asking for further information on the cuts, on the grounds that a future “Statistics on International Development” report would contain the information needed to provide a comparison with 2019’s spending.

Starling continued: “The government unfortunately did not publish a starting budget for 2020, so we don’t know how much ODA they planned to spend in the first place. We also still don’t know how much aid programs, such as health care programs or girls’ education, have been cut by. We don’t know how many people have been impacted by the cuts, and we don't know which countries have been hit hardest. The government needs to make this information public, sooner rather than later.”

UK government rejects aid cut information request 'for commercial reasons'

An NGO's freedom of information request about last year's aid cuts has been denied by government officials.

The provisional report also showed the continuation of a declining share of aid going to the Department for International Development, which has now merged into FCDO. Funding that went to DFID was 69.4% of the aid budget in 2020, the first time the department’s share fell to less than 70%, according to Ian Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development think tank.

DFID spending previously held high standards of aid transparency and effectiveness. But as FCDO was only formed in September, its record is yet to be built, and so far it has been responsible for a vast series of cuts, following the government’s reduction of the aid budget to 0.5% of national income, creating a gap of around £4.5 billion.

Spending by departments other than FCDO increased by 12.1% from 2019, reaching £3.8 billion. At £1 billion, the largest proportion went to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for significant climate funding.

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.