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

by Lin Taylor | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 12 July 2021 12:15 GMT

Displaced children eat inside a house in al-Zanbaqi village, in Idlib countryside, May 27, 2013. The children are showing symptoms of Leishmaniasis, a disease transmitted by sand flies, according to their parents. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

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Philanthropists help plug UK aid cuts to help poor communities already reeling from COVID-19

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -  Philanthropists including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are stumping up 93.5 million pounds  ($130 million) to help plug gaps following Britain’s decision to slash its foreign aid which charities have warned could put millions of lives at risk.

Britain is reducing 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 response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

NTDs  – which include leprosy, trachoma and elephantiasis – affect 1.7 billion people globally.

The World Health Organisation has warned the cuts could put millions at risk of death and disability.

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

The philanthropists said their emergency funds would help save critical projects tackling NTDs and providing family planning for million of girls and women in the poorest countries.

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 2019 were Pakistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Nigeria, with almost all the money going to countries in Africa and Asia, according to official data published last September.

Britain spent 1.5 billion pounds on humanitarian assistance mostly in Yemen, Syria and Bangladesh, government statistics showed.

The U.N. describes war-torn Yemen as the world's biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the population reliant on aid.

The coronavirus pandemic, economic decline, floods, escalating armed conflict and a severe aid funding shortage have again raised the possibility of famine in Yemen.

Britain also spent around 1.4 billion pounds on health projects including medical research, family planning and infectious disease control globally.

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.

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.

How will the philanthropists' money help?

The consortium of philanthropists - which includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the ELMA Foundation and Open Society Foundations - say the emergency aid will prevent life-saving drugs awaiting distribution from expiring and being thrown away.

It said Britain's withdrawal of funding for tackling NTDs threatened to put progress back decades at a time when many of the diseases were close to elimination.

The funding also aims to ensure that girls and women in the poorest parts of the world can access family planning services and avoid unplanned pregnancies which can jeopardise their health and exacerbate poverty.

“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.”

The consortium said cuts to sexual reproductive health services undermined the British government’s goal of keeping girls in school.

Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, said the cuts were a "shameful betrayal of British values in the world" which risked driving families into poverty, adding that the funding would give parliament time to "correct this historic injustice against women".

($1 = 0.7187 pounds)

This article was updated on July 12 to add details about philanthropists helping to plug the funding cuts.

(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 http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)