UK NGOs condemn 'truly shocking' lack of government aid transparency

DFID, in partnership with Plan International, supply food, water, and hygiene kits to homes hit by Ebola in Sierra Leone in 2015. Photo by: James Fulker / DFID / CC BY

A coalition of NGOs has joined together to condemn a “truly shocking” lack of government transparency on U.K. cuts to development aid, as a new analysis suggests more than 100,000 people could die as a result of the budget reductions.

Despite numerous efforts by the organizations to deal with the issue privately, “little to no information is being made publicly available,” according to Bond, the membership group for 400 U.K. NGOs; Development Initiatives, which tracks financial data; and Publish What You Fund, an aid transparency watchdog.

The rare joint statement said “parliamentary questions are routinely evaded” and “private requests for information receive light responses,” as organizations have been told to expect concrete facts in the fall — which would be nearly a year after cuts were made public.

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The announcement came a day after an analysis from the Center for Global Development suggested that the budget cuts — amounting to a reduction of £4.5 billion ($6.15 billion) in aid — will mean 103,571 fewer lives are saved as childhood immunizations for preventable diseases are scaled back.

Despite recent government concern around food security and education, the smaller pot could mean 15.7 million fewer women and children will be reached by nutrition-related interventions, and 4.5 million fewer children will be supported by educational initiatives.

Nearly 2 million fewer people will be reached with humanitarian assistance, while 15.8 million will lose out on care for tropical diseases, and 7.2 million fewer women and girls will have access to modern family planning methods, according to the report.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November 2020 that the U.K. would not hit its legally mandated target of spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on official development assistance, and would only be spending 0.5% of GNI on aid. The government has insisted it will return to spending 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows” but also announced its intention to bring new development legislation to confirm the spending changes.

“Given that the U.K. has consistently been such a global leader in aid transparency, it’s truly shocking how the cuts last year unfolded and how little we know about what’s happening this year.”

— Gary Forster, CEO, Publish What You Fund

Concern in the sector regarding government transparency on development policy has been mounting since the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office into a new body called the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office was announced in September. Bond has repeatedly accused the government of misrepresenting meetings it held with the group as a consultation on the departmental merger.

NGO staff have also complained of having little idea how reductions are being decided and if their programs will be affected, impacting their ability to plan, and thus their effectiveness on the ground.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact, a public watchdog, reported in December 2020 that government officials withheld information from NGOs and suppliers. FCDO’s chief economist, Rachel Glennerster, revealed some details of the aid reduction prioritization process only after questioning from a Devex journalist in a panel discussion.  

“Given that the U.K. has consistently been such a global leader in aid transparency, it’s truly shocking how the cuts last year unfolded and how little we know about what’s happening this year,” said Gary Forster, CEO at Publish What You Fund.

“Our approach to measuring and monitoring transparency assumes some minimum level of government engagement with their stakeholders on major policy and operational changes,” he added. “This time around we’re not seeing that happen.”

Abigael Baldoumas, policy and advocacy manager at Bond said: “Decisions have been and are being made without proper scrutiny, transparency or consultation with NGOs. With the government intending to cut the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI, despite COVID-19 continuing to push millions of people back into poverty, it is shocking both how little information is available about where these cuts will land and how much NGOs on the front line have been excluded from decision making.”

Development spending transparency is a “precursor” to effective aid, added Baldoumas, “as well as being accountable to the British taxpayer, and to ensure not a penny of public money goes to anything other than helping those who most need it.”

An FCDO spokesperson said the department is “fully committed to transparency” and pointed to priorities for spending published in November 2020. They said the pandemic’s effect on the U.K. economy has led to “tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid.”

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 william.worley@devex.com.