A rapid HIV test being administered at a health center in Ethiopia. Photo by: Sewunet / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

The United Kingdom’s funding for the United Nations agency focused on fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, UNAIDS, has been cut by 83%, according to advocates.

Thursday’s cut to UNAIDS — from £15 million ($20.9 million) to £2.5 million — comes amid wider cuts to sexual health programs. The large reduction to an annual budget item that was already relatively low surprised campaign group STOPAIDS, which said it was done “completely unnecessarily” — especially, it said, as the U.K. has given UNAIDS top marks in performance evaluations.

UK cuts family planning funding to UNFPA by 85%

Just six months ago, the U.K. was praised by UNFPA as a "longstanding and dedicated partner." But now, agreed funding is being slashed, and millions of women and girls are at risk.

Separately, the International Planned Parenthood Federation also announced Thursday the imminent closure of the Approaches in Complex and Challenging Environments for Sustainable SRHR program — also known as ACCESS, which is funded by the U.K. and designed to help improve access to sexual and reproductive health care by working with local communities — just six months into the project and after two years of preparation and £3 million in investment.

Other reductions to IPPF funding — first reported by Devex in March — will see the organization close around 4,500 service delivery points globally and cut 480 staffers.

A U.K. government review published in February 2020 said, “UNAIDS serves as the primary entity responsible for stimulating and coordinating global efforts to provide treatment, care and support for those living with HIV/AIDS and to unite efforts to prevent transmission of the virus.”

It also noted the organization required some improvements.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, multimonth dispensing of drugs has been crucial for people living with HIV so they don't have to regularly risk contracting the virus by visiting a clinic to get their medicines.

Movement restrictions have also made it more difficult for people to visit clinics — expected to decrease in number amid the aid cuts.

In Kenya, the government is embroiled in an HIV drug distribution dispute with the U.S. Agency for International Development that has led to countrywide shortages and clinics rationing drugs. Instead of multimonth supplies, people are only receiving enough pills to last about a week. Many people are skipping pills instead of going to the clinic weekly. Interrupted treatment can lead to increased transmission, opportunistic infections, and HIV drug resistance.

The United Kingdom’s cuts to UNAIDS follow the announcement of an 85% cut to the United Nations Population Fund’s supplies service, which provides NGOs and health ministries with contraceptives and medicines essential to sexual and reproductive health programs.

The U.K. — which recently endorsed UNAIDS’ new strategy to end HIV by 2030 — has historically been seen as a worldwide leader in fighting HIV, but campaigners claim the cut to UNAIDS will jeopardize this position.

“These shameful cuts to HIV funding risk abandoning the UK’s leadership and influence within the HIV response at a pivotal moment,” according to a statement by Saoirse Fitzpatrick, advocacy manager at STOPAIDS.

“These cuts will hit the most marginalised communities around the world hardest,” Fitzpatrick continued. “It threatens to undo decades of progress made in the HIV response that UK Aid has made possible. With 690,000 people dying from an AIDS related illness each year, the UK Government must urgently change tack and protect its funding for UNAIDS and other organisations doing vital work in the HIV response.”

“Disinvesting in public health only stores up problems for the future,” warned Christine Stegling, executive director at Frontline AIDS, an HIV-focused NGO.

Improved testing and treatment for HIV was also intended to be part of the ACCESS program, which focused on Lebanon, Mozambique, Nepal, and Uganda. Run by several organizations including IPPF and Frontline AIDS, ACCESS is now set to close in three months.

Alvaro Bermejo, director general at IPPF, said the closure of the ACCESS program was “profoundly upsetting.”

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"By breaking its manifesto commitments with tactics reminiscent of the [former U.S. President Donald] Trump era, this government will undo years of progress and investment,” he said. “Continuing to spin a narrative to the [U.S. President Joe] Biden administration and other governments that the U.K. still cares while removing funding for essential services will not fly.”

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office still provides funding for HIV through the international Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In the U.K. in 2019, then-Prime Minister Theresa May promised £1.4 billion to the organization over three years, which the current government is not expected to cut.

An FCDO spokesperson said the impact of the pandemic on the U.K. economy forced the decision to reduce the aid budget. The spokesperson added: “We will still spend more than £10 billion this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health. We are working with suppliers and partners on what this means for individual programmes.”

About the authors

  • 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.
  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.