The British government has denied a freedom of information request about cuts to the aid budget, fuelling further complaints about the transparency of its development policy.
The government said it could not provide information about the £2.9 billion ( $3.7 billion) reduction made in July 2020 to Bond, the U.K. network for NGOS, because of “commercial interest” and because the information would be provided in the future.
In response, Bond said the rejection was made on “spurious grounds” and that the FOI request was a last resort after they had tried other ways of getting information about the cuts and their impact.
“Having to use an FOI request to get such basic but critical information about where these cuts to humanitarian and development programmes have landed is unfathomable,” said Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond. The group said there was a “strong public interest” for information about the cuts to be made public as it provided accountability on aid to taxpayers.
Bond asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for “details of the £2.9bn package of reductions in the UK’s planned ODA spend for 2020 … including details of which thematic areas or programmes have been identified for cuts and the respective amounts.”
A government official confirmed FCDO “does hold information relevant to your request” but was withholding the information.
“The fact that [the FOI request] has now been rejected on spurious grounds will make people wonder what the government is trying to hide.”— Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond
Information on the cuts is also expected to be published in FCDO’s annual Statistics on International Development report, exempting it from transparency laws, according to the official.
“There is a strong public interest in ensuring that this information is available for public scrutiny,” wrote the official. “Factors against disclosure include the strong public interest in making the best use of public resources by pulling the information together; ensuring that it is accurate and publishing it in a consistent and comprehensive format as planned.”
But Bond argued there was a difference between what will appear in the report and what was identified for funding cuts in advance. The organization cited Information Commissioner Office guidance which states that “a general intention to publish some information will not suffice [as a reason for exemption]. It is not enough for the public authority to note that it will identify some, but not all, of the information within the scope of the request for future publication.”
The FCDO official also cited commercial interest as a reason for exemption from FOI laws, and wrote that FCDO needed to be able to “review policy options in a secure and sensitive way which does not undermine the commercial interests of FCDO.” According to the refusal, disclosure could undermine the department’s “business reputation.”
But Bond pointed out that the refusal itself may be damaging to the department’s partners in the international development community, saying in a statement that the government’s “refusal to publish the details of aid cuts made in 2020 risks damaging the FCDO’s reputation as a reliable partner and by failing to live up to their commitments to transparency.”
Many in the development sector feel they have waited long enough for information they consider to be basic. NGOs are still in the dark about the impact of the first round of aid cuts, made as the U.K.’s economy shrank due to the pandemic, decreasing the value of the official development assistance budget, then pegged to 0.7% of national income.
The uncertainty — which development professionals say has real world impacts on the effectiveness of programs — was compounded when the government announced it would reduce the aid budget to 0.5% of national income in November.
“The fact that [the FOI request] has now been rejected on spurious grounds will make people wonder what the government is trying to hide,” Starling said. “NGOs have been pushing for this information to be disclosed because these cuts will have a real impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.”