UK NGOs 'deeply concerned' about £20M for COVID-19 work in 15 countries

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Simon O’Connell, executive director of Mercy Corps. Photo by: World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek / CC BY-NC-SA

LONDON — U.K. NGOs that are lined up to respond to the coronavirus pandemic around the world are “deeply concerned” by the £20 million ($25 million) allocated to them by the government, saying the funding is drastically below what is needed for the work they are tasked with.

NGO leaders said the money would be spread much too thinly across the 15 vulnerable countries identified by the Department for International Development and called on it to increase its spending on the humanitarian response.

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Over the Easter weekend, DFID announced it would be contributing £200 million to fight COVID-19 in low-income countries, with £130 million going toward United Nations agencies, £50 million to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and just £20 million for other NGOs.

This comes on top of previous DFID pledges of £544 million for medical research, hygiene campaigning, and multilateral institutions.

The majority of the £20 million NGO funding will be disbursed by early May through DFID’s Rapid Response Facility, or RRF, which is made up of 36 government-approved NGOs.

“DFID should increase the amount [given] to NGOs. … There are huge capabilities in the 36 organizations in the RRF — that’s massive capacity. The reach is phenomenal in many countries,” said Jean-Michel Grand, CEO of Action Against Hunger. “But £20 million is not enough to reach the most vulnerable communities; to multiply [the amount] by four or five [would be better].”

Grand continued: “It’s a bit disappointing to see the whole U.K. government is making a massive effort to support the [domestic economy and charities] and [yet to] see the U.K. NGOs working overseas are not a privileged partner. … [It gives] the perception that U.K. NGOs are not really trusted.”

The sentiment was echoed by other NGO leaders.

“While we welcome DFID’s COVID-19 funding commitment and the vital role of multilateral institutions at this time, we are deeply concerned that only 10% is allocated for front-line NGOs already positioned to adapt and scale up COVID-19 responses and who are most able to deliver rapidly in this crisis,” said Simon O’Connell, executive director of Mercy Corps.

“[It gives] the perception that U.K. NGOs are not really trusted.”

— Jean-Michel Grand, CEO, Action Against Hunger

Graham MacKay, chief operating officer at Bond, the network for U.K. development NGOs, said £20 million is an amount that the U.K. government “might disburse for a major crisis in one country, rather than the amount needed to tackle a global pandemic in the 15 countries DFID has identified as at risk.”

A DFID spokesperson told Devex that those countries are Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Chad, Niger, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Central African Republic — many of which are challenging environments for humanitarian work.

While it is likely that some of the £130 million dedicated to multilaterals will eventually reach the NGOs, they say the process will take too long.

“Our experience fighting Ebola tells us that channeling funds through multilateral institutions risks slowing down the response, as they then need to subcontract funding to their delivery partners,” MacKay said. “This is a race against time. ... We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Alexander Matheou, executive director of international at the British Red Cross, told Devex the amount given to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was likely a reflection of the restrictions currently facing NGOs amid widespread lockdowns and travel constraints.

“This is primarily going to be a national and local response rather than an international one,” he said. “This money will enable the biggest national network of humanitarian organizations to be mobilized as auxiliaries to their states. … It's unlikely that any other agency has quite that network with a legal mandate able to be active in this response.”

Another DFID spokesperson said: “Our £200 million announced last week to support the international fight against coronavirus brings our total support to date to £744 million, with £50 million specifically for a global hand-washing initiative [in partnership with Unilever]. Our latest funding includes money to key partners like the WHO, U.N., and Red Cross, which will provide access to hygiene and sanitation, and we are encouraging the U.N. to channel funding as quickly as possible to NGOs.

“We are providing £20 million to NGOs. The majority of this will be allocated through our Rapid Response Facility, ensuring it can be used within a few weeks by preapproved U.K. and international NGOs selected for their humanitarian expertise, global reach, and ability to respond fast in an emergency.”

For O’Connell, the implications of any delay are clear. “Time lags mean lost lives,” he said. “DFID must urgently minimize the delays in funding reaching front-line NGOs who, in turn, must be committed to working collaboratively in consortia.”

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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.