Britain's foreign aid cut: who will feel the impact?

by Lin Taylor | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 October 2021 12:15 GMT

Afghan families, who are among displaced people fleeing the violence in their provinces, sit with their belongings as they prepare to return to their provinces, at a makeshift shelter at Shahr-e Naw park, in Kabul, Afghanistan October 4, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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Britain's Chancellor Rishi Sunak says foreign aid cuts will remain for the next three years. But aid groups argue the shortfall will have devastating effects in poorer countries

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, Oct 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rights groups say the world's poor risk "devastating" losses and "countless deaths" after Britain opted to maintain its deep cut in foreign aid spending for the next three years.

The government reduced overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of its gross national income this year in order to free up more cash for domestic spending in the pandemic.

The move will cut about 4 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) in spending per year, with some programmes such as one aimed at eliminating Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) axed completely.

The World Health Organization has warned millions could be left at risk of death and disability as a result.

In unveiling his budget on Wednesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he hoped to reinstate normal aid spending by 2024-5, earlier than some had predicted - but still too late for many.

Aid and justice groups said the shortfall would be a deadly blow to poorer countries as they struggle to recover from a pandemic that has knocked back economies and deepened poverty.

"Locking in aid cuts for a further three years will have a devastating impact, costing countless lives in the global south," said Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now.

The long wait "simply isn’t good enough" agreed Rose Caldwell, chief executive of children and girls' rights group Plan International UK.

"The world's women and girls need our full support now, not in three years' time. By then, cuts to overseas aid will have done untold damage."

Read more: U.N. says UK aid cuts likely to cause thousands of needless deaths

Why is Britain committed to spending money on aid?

In 1970, Britain pledged to spend 0.7% of its national income on aid as part of a United Nations pact.

It is among 30 wealthy countries including Germany and Japan that have vowed to meet this commitment each year and, in 2015, Britain enshrined in law that 0.7% of its income must be spent on aid.

"Investing less than one percent of our national income in aid is creating a safer, wealthier and more secure world," reads a government website explaining why it spends money on overseas aid.

In 2020, Britain spent 14.5 billion pounds ($20.18 billion) on aid, meeting the 0.7% U.N. target, according to preliminary data released in April. However, this was a decrease of 712 million pounds compared to 2019 due to a reduction of the country’s Gross National Income (GNI).

Do other countries make the same 0.7% commitment?

Yes, and in fact, several countries have exceeded the U.N. aid target including Denmark (0.73%), Luxembourg (1.02%), Norway (1.11%) and Sweden (1.14%), according to 2020 data by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In terms of overall spend, the United States is the biggest aid donor, spending $35.5 billion in 2020, followed by Germany ($28.4 billion), Britain ($18.6 billion), Japan ($16.3 billion) and France ($14.1 billion).

Despite the pandemic, official development assistance in 2020 rose by 3.5% compared to 2019, the highest figure on record, the OECD said.

Where does UK aid money go?

The top five countries receiving UK aid in 2020 were Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen, with almost all the money going to countries in Africa and Asia, according to official data published in September.

Britain spent 14.5 billion pounds on humanitarian assistance, a decrease of 698 million pounds (4.6%) on 2019, government statistics showed.

Last year, Britain spent around 1.6 billion pounds of its aid budget to help tackle the spread of coronavirus in developing countries.

How could recipients of UK aid be impacted?

Aid groups say reducing the aid budget will harm the world's poorest, hinder climate action and damage Britain's reputation as a leader in international development.

Bond, a network of UK development agencies, said humanitarian aid would be slashed by around 40%, though it was still unclear which countries would be affected.

Some humanitarian groups have shared details of heavy cuts to programmes.

The United Nations reproductive health agency UNFPA said the UK was slashing a 154 million pound commitment to just 23 million pounds this year.

The loss in funding is likely to lead to an extra 7 million unintended pregnancies, 2 million unsafe abortions and 23,500 maternal deaths, according to analysis from family planning charity MSI Reproductive Choices on how the cuts would impact its services.

More than 150 million pounds has been withdrawn from programmes fighting NTDs, according to a coalition of aid and research organisations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Telegraph has reported that the UK will slash funding for lifesaving water, sanitation and hygiene projects in developing nations by more than 80%, a move that charities have criticised given the importance of sanitation under COVID-19.

"At a time when the UK should be leading the international community in responding to the climate crisis ahead of the climate summit, it is slashing aid to communities on the front line of that crisis," said Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children, in a statement along with 200 charities.

“The UK’s hard-won reputation for international leadership in aid is in tatters."

The Norwegian Refugee Council said such cuts could exacerbate crises in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A patient infected with dengue rests while receiving treatment at a hospital in Asuncion, Paraguay January 16, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno

Why does Britain's government say it is changing the way aid money is spent?

Britain is currently reviewing foreign, defence and security policy, seeking to define a new role for itself in the world after leaving the European Union.

Last June, it merged its diplomatic and aid departments to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Charities said scrapping its development office, DFID, risked money being diverted to address foreign policy interests rather than alleviating poverty which itself fuels migration and insecurity.

But Britain's foreign minister, Dominic Raab, said the pandemic had shown how security, prosperity, development and foreign policy were inextricably interlinked.

Is anyone plugging the gaps in the meantime?

In many cases, projects have simply been cut, threatening rollbacks in areas such as health, education and peace building.

However, philanthropists including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced in July that they would stump up 93.5 million pounds ($130 million) to help plug gaps, including on programmes to tackle NTDs and provide family planning services.

The consortium of philanthropists - which also includes the Children's Investment Fund Foundation, the ELMA Foundation and Open Society Foundations - say the emergency aid will prevent life-saving drugs from expiring and being thrown away.

"We are stepping in so that, when the government returns to its commitments next year as it has promised, the progress made will not have been lost," said Kate Hampton, CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

"Otherwise, we will see a generation derailed by unplanned pregnancies and debilitating illness where health systems have already been disrupted by Covid-19, and the UK's aid cuts are now making it worse.

This article was updated on Oct. 28 to add responses to Sunak's announcement that aid spending would likely to return to 0.7 in 2024-5.

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Additional reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks and Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.  Visit to see more stories.)