LONDON — The U.K.’s aid budget is to be cut by £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion) this year, as the government grapples with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The acknowledgment comes after Devex revealed NGOs were being asked to cut this year's budget for existing programs.
While reductions in spending were expected — the U.K. aid budget is tied to 0.7% of gross national income, which is forecast to shrink — the cuts are deeper than some anticipated, amounting to around 20% of the annual aid budget.
The government will aim to protect spending on specific areas: poverty reduction “for the ‘bottom billion,’” climate change and reversing biodiversity loss, girls’ education, and the U.K.’s COVID-19 response, according to a letter from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to chairs of parliamentary select committees.
The government will also spend aid “campaigning on issues such as media freedom and freedom of religious belief” and has sought to “protect the UK’s science and research and development base.”
Raab confirmed that a review of official development assistance — or ODA — spending had taken place, “looking at every strand of the ODA budget, evaluating the impacts of spend and making sure we can maintain operational capacity.”
He wrote: “So that we can react to the potential shrinkage in our economy, and therefore a decrease in the value of the 0.7% commitment (which is based on the UK’s GNI), we have identified a £2.9bn package of reductions in the Government’s planned ODA spend so we can proceed prudently for the remainder of 2020.
“This package includes underspends, delaying activity and stopping some spend. All ODA spending Departments will now work with our respective supply chains to realise these reductions.”
Some cuts will take place immediately, Raab wrote. There are also “arrangements in place to tailor spending further during the remaining months as we start to gain a clearer economic picture.”
Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, which monitors ODA spending, said she was worried by how the cuts were being made.
“What concerns me is the speed at which these decisions have been made, the lack of transparency about what is being cut and why, and clearly the lack of consultation about it, because they [the government] literally have not had time to consult to see what is going to have the biggest impact going forwards in terms of [what] they are keeping,” she said.
Champion said she was most concerned about the government’s lack of a stated timescale for stopping and delaying activities. “Is that with immediate effect? Do the projects know about that? Or are we looking at something that is being relayed to NGOs through the media, much as the merger was announced without consulting or telling staff in advance?” she asked.
NGOs told Devex in June that they were being asked to identify cuts to this year’s budget for programs that are already running.
Champion continued: “The other thing I’m concerned about is where is the overarching strategy for all of this going forwards? It’s all very well asking departments where can you cut 30%, but who has got that oversight so the core functions that ODA is meant to deliver are being retained and it’s the surplus or duplicate being cut?”