Aid NGOs are calling for transparency around how the UK government is cutting its aid programmes. Publish What You Fund, Bond and Development Initiatives warn that decisions are being taken behind closed doors without proper scrutiny or consultation, arguing that this poses a serious threat to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
As a result of Covid-19 and the UK’s struggling economy, the government had already declared nearly £3bn in aid cuts before the Chancellor’s announcement that the government intends to reduce UK aid spend from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). The cuts are being made at a time when the world faces the biggest health and humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.
Despite multiple requests for details of where the aid cuts are landing and how decisions are being made, little to no information is being made publicly available. Parliamentary questions are routinely evaded, sign-posting Autumn as the point when the information will be shared – over a year after the cuts were announced and many made. Private requests for information receive light responses. Organisations are concerned that the UK’s commitment to aid transparency is waning, post the Foreign Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development merger.
Gary Forster, CEO of Publish What You Fund, the global campaign for aid and development transparency, said: “With the potential cut in UK aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI on the horizon, and given that the UK 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 added: “Our approach to measuring and monitoring transparency assumes some minimum level of government engagement with their stakeholders on major policy and operational changes – this time around we’re not seeing that happen.”
According to a recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) review of UK aid spending during the COVID-19 pandemic, “during the period from late May to August, government officials were instructed not to provide any information to suppliers, either about the prioritisation process or the implications for individual programmes. The existence of a prioritisation process was not a matter of public record until the chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP, wrote to the DFID secretary of state on 5 June asking for details. The process was confirmed in a 25 June reply.”
UK CSOs and in-country aid recipients are having to trawl through aid data to try and analyse where and to what extent these cuts are being made. Anecdotally, 25% worth of cuts has already been made to major programmes including UK Aid Direct, much of which goes to grassroots development projects. Organisations have been told that programme decisions have been officially paused, only then to be told that they are un-paused before having to slow down again, with no information on the delays. Many UK INGOs have been told to hand back funding they are unable to spend during COVID-19, rather than being allowed to extend or adapt the programme activity, as traditionally was common practice during a humanitarian crisis.
Based on the little available data, the majority of cuts seem to be falling on former DFID programmes, while funding to other government departments such as BEIS and the Home Office, and cross-government funds, including the Prosperity Fund and Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, looks to be maintained. This is despite weak standards of aid transparency among these departments and funds, which frequently fell short of the standards set by DFID. Before last year’s merger, the FCO’s transparency performance was consistently ranked far below that of DFID in the Aid Transparency Index.
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 frontline have been excluded from decision making.”
“The government needs to be transparent about how cuts will affect programmes such as girls’ education, strengthening health systems to deal with future pandemics, peacebuilding and humanitarian work. Transparency is a precursor to making aid effective, 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.”