The U.K. government has made an 85% reduction in aid funding to the United Nations Population Fund service that supplies reproductive health programs worldwide, according to the agency.
The United Kingdom will only give £23 million ($32 million) to UNFPA this year — sharply down from the £154 million it had agreed to give to the agency’s supplies program, which distributes contraceptives and medicines to health ministries and NGOs in lower-income countries to use in sexual and reproductive health programs.
The missing £131 million would have helped UNFPA prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies, and 4.3 million unsafe abortions, according to the agency.
Simon Cooke, chief executive at MSI Reproductive Choices — one of the largest organizations working in sexual and reproductive health — said that the group’s services often depend on UNFPA supplies and that canceling funding would drive up other costs.
The U.K. is also cutting its core funding to UNFPA by 60%, from £20 million to £8 million. UNFPA is the first U.N. agency to publicly discuss funding cuts resulting from the U.K. slashing its aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, leaving a £4.5 billion shortfall.
“To put it bluntly, this would probably do more damage to our service provision than the ‘global gag rule’ did.”— Simon Cooke, chief executive, MSI Reproductive Choices
A U.N. source described the news as “absolutely devastating.” The person wrote: “For us what makes it particularly bitter (in addition to the massive scale) is that it’s funds that they’d [the U.K.] already committed to and signed the agreements for, which is unheard of. (Not even [former U.S. President Donald] Trump did that — he honoured the agreements in place when he came to office). Painful times.”
MSI’s Cooke confirmed to Devex that the U.K. government was also reneging on agreed funding for the part of the Women's Integrated Sexual Health program run by his organization. Devex reported on cuts to the International Planned Parenthood Federation element of the same program in March. While MSI is still working out what impact the cuts will have, the organization works with women in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso.
Cooke said the cut to UNFPA Supplies “will impact country program support beyond those countries directly funded by FCDO [the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office], because every country depends to some degree on free or subsidized commodities.”
“That would push up the cost of service provision in all other countries if we were not able to access free commodities through the UNFPA,” he added.
“To put it bluntly, this would probably do more damage to our service provision than the ‘global gag rule’ did,” Cooke said, referring to the U.S. Mexico City Policy. He continued: “The U.S. government made a lot of noise but didn’t actually cut a lot of SRH [sexual and reproductive health] funding to the international community, but in this case the U.K. government is actually doing it. … It’s a genuine and real cut.”
As recently as October, the U.K. agreed to provide funds to UNFPA Supplies with a “record-breaking” £425 million until 2025, according to the agency, which lauded the country at the time as a “world-leading supporter of family planning and a longstanding and dedicated partner of UNFPA.”
Former FCDO Minister Liz Sugg, who made that commitment only to resign just over a month later over the aid cuts, told Devex: “I deeply regret these cuts to lifesaving family planning services. This decision means that millions of women will not have access to the voluntary contraception that gives them the ability to choose when, if, and how many children to have. These specific cuts are also a breach of a signed agreement that the U.K. made with multiple international partners, putting into question our reputation as a trusted ally in the future.”
In 2019, even amid strong opposition from the United States — then led by Trump’s administration — the U.K. announced £600 million for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, winning praise from advocates.
“The UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls living in the world’s poorest countries,” Alok Sharma, former U.K. minister for international development, said in 2019. He specified that choosing when and how to have children was a “basic right that every woman and girl deserves.”
The current U.K. government has claimed that girls’ empowerment is a key objective, but numerous experts have said this is undermined by the aid cuts.
When asked for comment, an FCDO spokesperson said the pandemic had meant “tough but necessary” decisions for U.K. aid and that final decisions on funding to individual programs “will be announced in due course.”
Update April 29, 2021: This piece has been updated with comment from FCDO.