UK government urged to cut £1.6B of 'phony aid' first

The ONE Campaign has identified £1.6 billion worth of projects that do not meet “real aid” standards. Photo by: Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

LONDON — An anti-poverty campaign group has identified billions of pounds’ worth of “phony aid” that it says should be the first to go in forthcoming U.K. aid cuts.

A ONE Campaign analysis found £1.6 billion ($2 billion) worth of projects that were paid for with official development assistance in 2018 but that failed to meet high standards on poverty reduction, effectiveness, or transparency.

There will be UK aid cuts this year, Anne-Marie Trevelyan confirms

The acknowledgment comes after Devex revealed NGOs were being asked to cut this year's budget for existing programs.

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to shrink the U.K. economy this year, which in turn will hit the aid budget, as it is tied to gross national income. Cuts to project budgets are already impacting some programs, with aid advocates worried that they are not being properly targeted to safeguard the most critical programs.

This comes as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab prepares to take control of nearly 80% of the U.K.’s ODA budget under the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which some say will dilute the poverty reduction focus of U.K. aid. The Department for International Development was rated highly for its spending by ONE’s analysis, while the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s poverty focus was branded as “weak” and its spending effectiveness and transparency as “moderate.”

Romilly Greenhill, ONE’s U.K. director, said that cuts were unavoidable but that they shouldn’t hit the world’s poorest.

“This is the foreign secretary’s first test as the minister who will soon be in charge of the largest chunk of aid,” she said. “To ensure he’s cutting correctly, he’ll need to use a surgeon’s scalpel and not a gardener’s scythe ... Let’s look to the phony aid when we need to make cuts now and in the years to come.”

Among the programs that ONE said did not meet its criteria were the Home Office’s £21 million Hunter and Chaucer “capability building” projects. Project Chaucer aims to “create highly-skilled multi-agency local teams capable of deterring the use of individuals and freight to smuggle drugs or other harmful commodities within developing countries by criminal gangs,” according to DevTracker, a U.K. government website.

Project Hunter was criticized by campaign group Privacy International in 2019, which said it raised “serious concerns regarding the diversion of aid money, the international transfer of discriminatory or otherwise unlawful surveillance capabilities, and the transfer of sophisticated privacy-invasive capabilities to countries with significant governance, rule of law, and human rights concerns.”

Worth £58 million, the FCO’s Chevening Scholarship, which funds international students to study at U.K. institutions, was also among the projects identified as a poor use of aid. The money is “effectively tied to UK institutions and is only open to students with a Bachelors’ degree, who are rarely the most marginalised,” according to ONE.

ONE said that FCO’s spending of £287 million of ODA on front-line diplomatic work in lower-income countries should also be cut and that there was “little or no information” available about how the money was spent or its contribution to poverty reduction. Some development experts have criticized the government for underfunding the FCO in recent years, incentivizing the department to use ODA for routine diplomatic work.

Prosperity Fund spending was highlighted as well. This fund, which prioritizes middle-income countries, spent £20 million in 2018 on its China Prosperity Fund Programme, which has a stated secondary benefit of aiming to “produce commercial benefits for international companies, including UK businesses,” as well as £36 million on the Global Trade Programme, which seeks to boost U.K. commerce.

ONE said in a press release that as cuts take hold, projects that do not meet its “real aid” standards “should be first to go” to avoid the impact “falling on those living in poverty and [to] retain the majority of UK aid that is clearly making real change for people in the world’s poorest countries.”

A government spokesperson said: “UK aid is helping to end extreme poverty in developing countries by tackling challenges like coronavirus, saving lives in humanitarian crises and helping girls get a quality education. Using expertise from across government, the UK is rightly recognised for supporting the world’s poorest people and UK aid represents the best possible value for the taxpayer.”

Editor’s note: Every U.K. government department — other than the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs — fact-checked the ONE Campaign’s figures cited in this story. Where there are inconsistencies with other sources, ONE used the figures that came directly from government departments.

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.