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Death by a thousand cuts: The decline of the UK as an aid superpower

When Boris Johnson’s government cut the aid budget in 2020, it dealt a devastating blow to charities and the people they support, but did it also sound the death knell for the UK’s role as an aid superpower?

Photo: The New European

Beth Muna is worried. The Covid pandemic struck like a hammer in Nairobi’s sprawling informal settlements, pushing people living precarious lives closer to destitution. And the Kenyan social worker says there just isn’t enough money to help everyone. 

“We have families crowded in the area chief’s offices, trying to see whether there is any food being channelled there by the national government. At the missionary organisations, you will find people around that gate, waiting to see if they can be called for a meal. It is hectic, it is bad,” she says.

Muna is the lead social worker for UK-based charity Tushinde, which helps around 150 families struggling with poverty, alcoholism, mental health issues and other challenges in the Mathare and Kiambiu settlements. Typically, Tushinde supports a family for five years until the household is ready to “graduate”, meaning the parents or caregivers are in a position to look after their children. Normally as one family graduates, another joins the scheme, but these days, despite having a long waiting list, no new families are being signed up because the funds are just not there.

“It’s a situation we have never experienced before and I don’t know how the future will look because challenging cases are coming each day, with safeguarding issues for children. We are desperate at the moment,” Muna says over Zoom from her home in Nairobi.

Megan Wright, who founded Tushinde when she lived in Kenya in 2010, says the causes of this funding shortfall are complex. Tushinde’s most recent grant – £50,000 over two years – came from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s Small Charities Challenge Fund (SCCF) and was to provide tablets and software to their social workers to enable them to keep accurate, accessible records of children at risk. 

It was gratefully received, but Wright’s small team found the reporting stipulations attached to the grant quite time-consuming. They persevered, though, because they hoped the extra effort would pay off by enabling them to access more FCDO funds in the future.

But that hasn’t happened and, in fact, with the sudden announcement in 2020 that the UK would cut the aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, everyone is scrambling for skinnier pieces of a shrinking pie. That means projects have been cancelled, postponed or reduced and needy people – often in countries whose development has been stymied by historical injustices, unequal global trading structures, or wars fuelled by Western weapons – have suddenly been told the vital services they had come to rely on are no longer available. 

The cuts have affected programmes to empower teenage girls in Nigeria and Afghanistan; to clear land mines in Zimbabwe; support ambulance services in Sierra Leone; treat neglected tropical diseases in west and central Africa; help people live with HIV in Uganda; battle malaria in Nigeria; prevent blindness and treat curable eye problems in Bangladesh; and to bring antagonistic communities together in conflict-weary South Sudan. This is not a definitive list. 

As part of the reductions, the SCCF, which has given out £4.7m in funding to small UK-based charities such as Tushinde since 2017, has stopped accepting new applications.

Wright says the overall context for small charities was made even tougher by the pandemic. A lot of the trusts and foundations that Tushinde would normally approach for grants decided to focus on UK-based projects. Where there was still interest in overseas projects, Wright found herself competing against larger charities that would normally not bother with the smaller grants. 

It’s a triple whammy: no more funds from SCCF and yet Tushinde is still absorbing the costly changes it made to manage the original grants; a more limited pool of trusts and foundations to apply to because of a pivot towards growing needs in the UK; and more competition for any funds still available for overseas development.

 “It’s pretty hellish,” she said over Zoom from her home in Berkshire. “We haven’t stopped taking on extra families because of losing the FCDO funding. However, it feels like the whole wind-down of FCDO activities is having repercussions. We are nervous to continue helping at our current level as the funding outlook is so bleak,” she said. 

“And all those families are in acute crisis. They’re either freshly evicted, or confirmed with malnutrition or one of the caregivers is unable to look after their children, either because they’re bedridden from HIV or they’ve got alcoholism or mental health problems … So what we’re doing is giving them a very basic food parcel and saying, ‘sorry, we can’t help you,’ and our community health volunteers will keep an eye out but then it will get to a stage where they have too many families to keep an eye on.”

The Shrinking Pie

Although Tushinde’s funding crisis has complex causes, it is playing out against a background of drastic cuts across the sector because of the government’s decision to ditch the 0.7% commitment – a target set by the United Nations in 1970 and enshrined into UK law as the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 under the then prime minister David Cameron.

Even before it became law, Cameron was particularly committed to the target, defending it through years of austerity when tabloids regularly printed stories about “wasteful” aid. After the UK became the first G7 government to enshrine it into law, it seemed as if a golden age was dawning for a truly global Britain committed to improving the lives of the less fortunate because it was the right thing to do and the wise thing to do. 

Justine Greening, international development secretary at the time, said the law cemented Britain’s global leadership: “Tackling poverty overseas is about addressing the root causes of global challenges such as disease, migration, terrorism and climate change, all of which are the right things to do and firmly in Britain’s own national interest.”

For Mary Creagh, Labour’s shadow international development secretary, the bill ensured “that whoever is in government, our promises to the world’s poor will be honoured”.

Fast forward to 2020 and it turns out the legal guarantee was not enough to deter Boris Johnson’s government from cutting the target from 0.7% to 0.5% – a move some experts say might not even have been legal without new legislation. 

Still, it was not the first, nor indeed probably the last, legally binding promise – and manifesto pledge – that Johnson’s post-Brexit government decided was a matter of interpretation. And one might argue that the unprecedented scale of the Covid pandemic meant the reduction in aid could be rationalised.

But the case is not so cut-and-dried. Everyone was touched by the pandemic, but not everyone cut aid. In fact, the EU increased its humanitarian aid budget by 60% to €1.4bn (£1.2bn) in 2021. The OECD said official development assistance from its members rose by 3.5% in 2020 to the highest figure on record, despite the pandemic. 

For Ranil Dissanayake, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, there was nothing in the UK’s fiscal circumstances that meant 0.7% became suddenly unaffordable. The economic shock from the pandemic was sharp, but it was short-lived. “To respond to a short, sharp shock with a long drawn-out, perhaps permanent belt-tightening is not particularly logical. It smacks of finding an excuse to pursue an ideological preference,” he said. 

In any case, because the aid budget is tied to the size of the economy, it shrank as growth plummeted in 2020, going from £15.2bn in 2019 to £14.5bn. Then came the cut to 0.5%, announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in November.

That meant a reduction of £4bn to around £11.1bn in 2021 or 0.5% of an economy that, despite all the rhetoric around the need to tighten belts, Johnson now regularly extols as the fastest growing among G7 nations. 

Romilly Greenhill, UK director for the ONE campaign, says the cut only amounted to around 1% of the UK’s deficit. “We were actually the only G7 country to cut aid during the pandemic. Many other G7 countries either protected or increased their aid budgets,” she said, equating Britain’s decision to “cutting the RAF in the middle of the Battle of Britain”.

In the grand scheme of things, to lose £4bn might not seem like a lot and indeed it pales in comparison with the £37bn spent on the notoriously ineffective test-and-trace system or the £16bn lost to fraud and error across the Covid-19 emergency loan schemes. Not to mention the nearly £9bn on PPE that was faulty or not used before its expiry date. 

But while relatively insignificant compared with these sums, the £4bn cut has had a devastating effect in those places where it could have made a real difference. When the cut was announced, charities and experts warned a million girls could lose out on schooling, almost three million women and children could go without life-saving nutrition and 5.6 million children could miss out on critical vaccinations, causing up to 100,000 deaths. 

Johnson’s government – not known for its empathy for those less fortunate either at home,  where poor decision-making during the pandemic led to thousands of extra deaths, or abroad – was not deterred by these warnings. The change was pushed through in a parliamentary vote last July with Tory whips having to quell a revolt. Sunak promised the measure was only temporary, but politicians know only too well how quickly such pledges can disappear into oblivion. 

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said the government was “trashing our international reputation” while Global Justice Now accused those who voted for the cut of having “blood on their hands”. Former prime minister John Major said it showed “the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”, while Theresa May said the UK had broken its promise to the world’s poor. Baroness Elizabeth Sugg, an FCDO minister, resigned shortly afterwards, saying the cut “risks undermining our credibility on the world stage”.

Syria Relief, which works with people displaced by the country’s years-long war, carried out a survey to assess how the spending cuts were playing among those who would be affected. It found that 93% of respondents – drawn from the displaced and refugees – said the aid cut had led to a deterioration in their opinion of the UK. 

“Not only will the UK’s decision to cut its aid budget threaten the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, such as the victims of the Syrian conflict, but [it will] damage the UK’s once considerable soft power, or in other words, its ability to gain influence through non-coercive means,”  the charity said when the report – Cuts With A Double-Edged Sword: How the UK Aid Budget Reduction is Harming Victims of the Syrian Conflict and British Soft Power – was released in January.

Sarah Champion, Labour MP and chair of the International Development Committee, a parliamentary body that scrutinises aid spending, said the UK government had clearly broken promises and at the worst possible time.

“The government is advertising its unreliability as an international aid partner at a time of acute crises. Our world is perilously unstable, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to climate breakdown – the challenge of global vaccination alone makes international cooperation more important than ever.”

Boris Johnson likes to wax lyrical about global Britain – after the Brexit vote in 2016 he said “Brexit emphatically does not mean a Britain that turns in on herself” – but to some degree, the writing had been on the wall for a shift in development priorities. 

Just a few months before the budget cut was announced, the former Department for International Development, or DfID, was merged into the FCO – which could be read as another fairly blunt signal of where the government’s priorities lay. The post of minister for international development became just another portfolio for the foreign minister – Liz Truss today. DfID, widely regarded as a very effective global actor, was originally spun out of the FCO in 1997 to protect the use of aid for poverty reduction after the Pergau Dam scandal, in which an aid project was revealed to be linked to the sale of fighter jets to Malaysia.

Announcing the merger, Johnson, a man who had to get rich Tory donors to fund his No 10 revamp at a cost of around £112,000, annoyed DfID staffers by saying: “For too long, frankly, UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interest.”

In an email response to questions for this article, an FCDO spokesman said the UK had spent more than £10bn in aid last year and was committed to protecting the world’s most vulnerable communities “through our bilateral and multilateral aid programmes, and we will return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows”. 

Sunak has already said this will happen when two criteria are met: when the government is not borrowing money for day-to-day spending and when underlying debt is falling as a percentage of national income. Most analysts agree that the earliest would be in 2024-25. 

But the whittling away continues. Last October, the Jubilee Debt Campaign said the government had confirmed, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, that it would cut a further £861m from the aid budget by counting debt relief to Sudan as ODA, or official development assistance – an act that Jubilee described as “adding insult to injury on aid cuts”.

There is also talk of counting vaccine donations as aid, and of charging Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) – complex currency handouts from the International Monetary Fund to the UK that are being reallocated to poorer countries – to ODA.

On his blog, Dissanayake breaks down the numbers and says such moves would amount to a “complete gutting of the UK’s status as a major bilateral development presence”. Greenhill says ONE understands that the debt cancellation, SDRs and vaccine donations will all be included in the 0.5%, which means less money to spend on other programmes. 

Of course, the UK is not the only actor in this sphere. But until now it has been a key one. Johnson is always keen to talk up Britain’s “world-beating” status in everything from vaccine distribution to diplomacy – often without any real basis in fact – but in a sphere where the moniker was actually true, he and his team seem hell-bent on destroying that leadership role. 


The spending cuts strike across the board and across the globe – nothing is seemingly safe. The list of affected projects and sectors is both a tribute to Britain’s previous engagement as a widely admired “aid superpower”, but also an indication of how much this relatively small financial saving is going to cost the world’s poorest people.

Efforts have been made to tally the human cost, but aid workers are also sensitive about speaking out too directly because, after all, one shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds one, even if the food it’s offering today is less than yesterday. Part of the problem was how suddenly the axe fell, with money disappearing from projects overnight. “Cutting the budget rapidly was horrible. Inevitably lots of good things were sacrificed. It was very hard to do in a logical way that protected the best stuff,” said Dissanayake.

Greenhill says Africa is being disproportionately affected. “Humanitarian aid is taking a disproportionate hit, areas such as girls’ education, family planning … it’s pretty severe,” she said.

David Bennett, director of programme support at Orbis UK, which fights blindness and other eye problems, said his charity had to cancel a planned project in Bangladesh after a provisional grant from the FCDO’s UK Aid Direct was withdrawn. The aim was to integrate comprehensive eye care into the existing health system by opening vision centres and training health workers. 

“That’s all been lost and ultimately, by the end of three years, we had anticipated treating over 400,000 patients directly, but the catchment area was about 3 million people,” Bennett said, noting that the project would have been run in one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas. 

Orbis’s local team had already met with government representatives: money, health and jobs were on the line and everyone was on tenterhooks as they waited for the £1.4m, three-year grant to be confirmed. But then it fell through.

Other Orbis projects were also affected by the cuts, including a five-year programme to combat trachoma in Ethiopia. Because, Bennett explains, eliminating trachoma requires regular treatment to prevent it worsening into trichiasis, where the eyelids turn inwards and scratch the cornea, the charity found the money to keep that project going. “We couldn’t in all conscience stop three years in so we found the money internally to do that although there is an opportunity cost there because something else didn’t get funded,” Bennett said.

Orbis may have salvaged that programme, but this is only a sticking plaster on the gash left by the FCDO axe, even if Orbis is big enough for this not to be terminal. But it has had to reduce its budget and its activities and Bennett is not too hopeful for a return to the 0.7% target.  

“I’ve been in the sector for 22 years and DfID/FCDO has always been a reliable partner, particularly in providing multi-annual funding, which is a bit of a Holy Grail, and such a broad range of funding, from emergencies to livelihoods to governance,” he said. “Optimistically, we think that maybe in 2023 there might be clarity on new funding mechanisms and, given the gestation period of proposals and funding decisions, we could secure another grant in 2024, but we’re not writing anything into a budget.”

Save the Children UK said five of its UK government-funded programmes were affected by the cuts, including programmes supporting families and children’s livelihoods, education, resilience building (an oft-used piece of jargon that basically means helping people in dire situations to cope with crises), and refugee responses. Sometimes this meant projects stopping dead, meaning jobs were cut and crucial end-of-programme information lost. 

Adam Berthoud, interim executive director of global programmes at Save the Children UK, said: “After hearing of support to the crises in Yemen and Syria being slashed by half last year, we now also know that low-income countries have faced worse cuts than richer countries.” He added that it was hugely disappointing to see the most critical services hit hardest, especially in Africa.

“The cuts compromised outcomes for children in the most vulnerable settings, and risked decimating the trust held with families, communities, our programme partners, international donors and partner governments. Therefore, the UK aid cuts of 2021 and any future cuts risk wasting valuable taxpayers’ money, compromised value-for-money objectives and the reputation of the entire sector,” he said. 

Another affected charity is Sightsavers, which ran a programme to eliminate Neglected Tropical Diseases, such as river blindness, in west and central Africa. As part of the cuts the £220m, three-year public-private partnership known as Ascend (Accelerating the Sustainable Control and Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases), which also ran in east and south Africa and parts of south Asia, was closed six months early. 

In written testimony to the IDC watchdog last May, Sightsavers warned that the immediate withdrawal of funding threatened millions of life-changing treatments with drugs potentially going to waste. However, Simon Bush, director of NTDs at Sightsavers, said community-selected health volunteers were able to deliver most of those drugs to people suffering from diseases like river blindness, which causes skin irritation, itching and, eventually, blindness, or lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease causing severe disfigurement. Now, he is working to find alternative resources. He is particularly worried about the lack of funds for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

“What we’re attempting to do now is to look forward and to try and fill the treatment gaps,” he said. “Yes, there was the FCDO decision to terminate the funding, but for me … the important thing is to make sure the communities are not impacted by this … Because we are looking at elimination of disease, you are also looking for a high level of continuity for your funding. At the moment what I’m really worried about … is that we go from year to year. We know we can cover the funding for this year, for example in Liberia, but I’ve got to find it the following year and the year after.”

And this is why the FCDO’s longer-term funding commitments – what Bennett described as the Holy Grail – were so important. Bush says he is hopeful there will be a commitment to NTDs in the long-awaited International Development Strategy, expected in the coming weeks. In February, Truss said this policy document will “promote British expertise and bring more countries into the orbit of free, democratic nations”. It does not seem like the most altruistic of statements; Devex newswire pointed out that she did not refer to reducing poverty, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – a blueprint for development – or restoring the 0.7% target.

The FCDO cuts have also affected UN agencies, like UNFPA, the sexual and reproductive health agency, which said the UK slashed funding for its family planning projects by 85% in 2021, with a promised contribution of £154m falling to around £23m. 

UNFPA’s executive director, Dr Natalia Kanem, said the money would have helped to prevent 250,000 maternal and child deaths and 4.3m unsafe abortions. She regretted “the decision of our longstanding partner and advocate to step away from its commitments at a time when inequalities are deepening and international solidarity is needed more than ever”.

If UN aid behemoths are suffering, so too are the smallest charities, like Tushinde. The pot of available funds is shrinking at a time when the world is still reeling from the pandemic. And it’s not just the Covid crisis – the climate emergency and related extreme weather events, the threat of famine in Afghanistan, and the war in Ukraine are already creating new humanitarian demands and future development challenges.

From leader to laggard

When the then foreign secretary Dominic Raab unveiled the shrunken aid budget last April – in a written statement rather than the traditional parliamentary appearance – charities criticised the lack of detail provided and the way the aid allocations were broken down thematically rather than by sectors or countries, making it harder to track spending.

Raab said the budget was guided by the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which set out “how an independent and sovereign global Britain will act as a force for good and use its influence to shape the future international order”. Half of the bilateral ODA budget would be spent in Africa, he said, while a third of bilateral ODA would be spent in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia. 

A few days later, Nobel prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban in 2012, tweeted: “Spoke with Prime Minister @BorisJohnson this morning. I applaud his dedication to girls’ education – but I am concerned he won’t reach his goal of helping 40M girls go to school unless the U.K. recommits 0.7% of national income to aid and pledges £600M to @GPforEducation [Global Partnership for Education].”

In May, Johnson said investing in girls’ education around the world would be a key priority for the UK’s presidency of the G7 because it “is one of the smartest investments we can make as the world recovers from Covid-19”.

These words might ring a bit hollow in Rwanda where a £12.5m girls’ education programme, Investing In Adolescent Girls in Rwanda, was cancelled in September 2020.

Critics might argue that the UK has already paid its share. Why should it do more, especially when finances are so tight after the pandemic and with the war in Ukraine now sending oil and gas prices into the stratosphere? 

There is, of course, a moral imperative for a country that once prided itself on the size of its empire to accept a certain degree of historical responsibility for the welfare of people in countries it once exploited for goods and labour. But, if that is not your thing, there is also a more self-interested motivation.

In a speech to the Aspen Security Conference in March last year, Raab said the UK had a “moral responsibility and an indivisible stake” in the planet, the global economy and the global ecosystem. “We do it because it is the right thing to do but also because bitter experience shows us that strengthening fragile countries and their people is essential to reduce the terrorist threat and to reduce the migratory flows that arrive in the UK,” he said. 

The problem is that the aid cuts are dramatically reducing Britain’s ability to address some of these challenges. Dissanayake says this may not be a priority anyway for Johnson’s team. 

“From Blair to David Cameron, there was a genuine sense of caring how we were seen around the world and actually wanting to do good,” he says, adding that this explains the resources devoted to aid and the creation of a well-resourced DfID. It’s different under Johnson.

“When they talk about Global Britain, the strong sense I get is that it’s a bit less about having many friends in the world and being seen to do the right thing than about the UK having an official relationship with specific places. By that criteria, it makes a great deal of sense to them to divert the aid budget towards trade with middle-income countries or to do a few ineffective projects in Latin America that are popular with the domestic governments despite the fact that there are many poorer places where they could do a lot of good.”

So perhaps the cut in the aid budget signals a wider pivot that will see the UK’s overseas development agenda align more and more closely with its own narrow national interest. 

Take, for example, the decision to rename and rebrand the Commonwealth Development Corporation, the UK’s development finance institution, as British International Investment – a move decried by NGOs and trade unions who accused the government of “chasing colonial post-Brexit fantasies”.

When Truss unveiled the CDC-BII change, she said the overhaul was part of the “network of liberty” strategy of the FCDO and would boost growth in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. But it does look more like a trade policy than a development one.

IDC’s Champion says development is being used to advance other agendas. “Just look at Liz Truss’s references to creating UK jobs when rebranding British International Investment, while failing to mention poverty reduction. At a time of unprecedented global need, the UK does seem like it’s turning away,” she said.

Dissanyake believes the UK may one day return to committing 0.7%, but it is unlikely to be under this government. 

“I can’t see anybody on that front bench who is a real champion for doing development well and there are plenty in the Conservative party who would be. It’s not a party political point. It’s a cliche but it’s true: tearing something down is always easier than building it up,” he said. 

Greenhill notes that recent polls show that public support for aid actually increased in 2021, with particularly strong backing for policies such as vaccine donations. This makes her more optimistic about the prospects of a return to the 0.7% target, especially since Sunak committed to it so publicly in last year’s spending review.  

Champion says the government’s track record on aid is not encouraging, but she too believes the British public will hold the government to account on its promises. 

“Trust in Britain has been damaged, though hopefully not irrevocably. What frustrates me most is this government is giving away our international influence. We had standing on the world stage as we were seen to lead by example, a country that does the right thing – now we are seen as one of broken promises and hollow words when it comes to our commitment to the world’s poorest.”

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