UK government quietly halves funding for major human rights program

U.K. aid shelter kits being loaded onto a truck for shipment from a warehouse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by: DFID / CC BY-ND

The U.K. government has halved its aid funding for a program supporting human rights and supporting “the rules-based international system,” according to transparency documents.

“The ODA [official development assistance allocation] for 2020 to 2021 for the human rights, democracy, and the rules-based international system programme is £8,500,000 [$11.7 million],” said the document, published Tuesday.

This compares to £17.66 million which was authorized for the same program for 2019-2020, according to the previous year’s document. The program was run by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office before that department merged with the Department for International Development last year.

Polly Truscott, foreign affairs adviser at Amnesty International UK, called the move “hugely regrettable” and “obviously at odds with promises made” by the government. Truscott added that it seemed to have been decided “without a proper and transparent impact assessment.”

A Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesperson said the department paused funding for the program “for six months from March 2020 to prioritise support for the global Coronavirus response” and that it resumed last September. “This six month pause is the reason the funding for 2020 to 2021, was £8.5m, half that of the previous year,” the spokesperson added.

The COVID-19 response included “re-prioritising ODA budgets in summer 2020,” according to the document. A first round of cuts of £2.9 billion to the aid budget was made in summer 2020 as the U.K.’s economy shrank amid the pandemic. At the time, ODA was pegged to 0.7% of national income.

In November, the U.K. government announced it was reducing the aid budget to 0.5% of national income, prompting rapid and wide ranging cuts to be made to programs. But the government has been secretive in its handling of the cuts, and it remains unclear what has been affected.

UK aid to refocus on countries where 'interests align'

Cuts to the U.K.'s aid budget have been followed by a new strategy, centred around seven global challenges and countries where "development, security and economic interests align."

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced in December that supporting human rights would be a priority for the government, as part of its commitment to open societies and conflict resolution, as one of the “Global Challenge” areas guiding FCDO’s work. The Integrated Review, a key policy document, doubled down on this commitment.

“Promoting human rights and defending democracy is a crucial part of our work as a force for good in the world,” said the FCDO spokesperson.

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