The UK aid cuts have been a political & human train wreck so far, but that could/should change

What is going on with the cuts to the UK’s aid budget? Judging from first impressions, the axe is being arbitrarily taken to a lot of really good aid programmes, with no overall plan or rationale. Surely that must be wrong – this is a £10 billion budget we’re talking about, even after the cuts. Any manager knows that budgets sometimes have to go down, but that can be managed well, or done badly. Turns out the UK aid system is firmly in group 2.

Endangered species?

There have actually been two rounds of cuts. In July 2020, the government announced a £2.9bn cut based on what turns out to be an exaggerated estimate of falling GDP (if the economy shrinks, the aid budget stays at 0.7% of GNI, then aid has to shrink too). Then in November came the abandonment of 0.7% in favour of 0.5% – amounting to around £4bn in cuts.

We currently know more about the first set of cuts, thanks to a new report by ICAI, the independent aid watchdog, and it doesn’t look good. According to a summary in the Guardian, ‘UK civil servants were given five to seven working days to prepare 30% cuts. Ministers spent only seven hours discussing the proposed £2.9bn cuts to multilateral and bilateral aid, and then imposed them predominantly on the world’s poorest countries despite giving instructions for the opposite to happen.’

The latest round of cuts shows every sign of being just as chaotic and damaging, judging by a torrent of news stories about aid programmes and research being axed. Ministers have, to put it kindly, been on the back foot, defending the indefensible (or failing to). I’ve confirmed the general sense of chaos in a few off-the-record chats with colleagues at the FCDO, who seem very scared indeed of being accused of leaks like the one that embarrassed Dominic Raab in March (on the need to trade with human rights abusers).

Last week, Channel 4 News exposed one new aspect of the mess – ‘a plan to send surplus PPE to India was delayed as the Treasury insisted the items would have to count towards overall aid spending’.

£10bn is still a lot of money, and Ranil Dissayanake has done his best to piece together a picture of what kind of UK aid programme is emerging from the wreckage (since we’re not getting much help from the government in forming that picture).

Beyond the obvious damage to poor and vulnerable people around the world who suddenly lose access to food, shelter, family planning or other aid programmes, what is this kind of headline doing to the UK’s reputation?

This is a big year for UK diplomacy, chairing the G7 and hosting the climate change summit in Glasgow in November. At such moments, governments always like to be able to laud their leadership and build their ‘soft power’. That is very hard to do when all the press coverage is about the kind of miserly behaviour displayed by the Treasury towards India – the government is reportedly surprised by the level of negative press it is getting, but as one FCDO colleague put it ‘if you were trying to guarantee a long stream of really bad news, this is how you would do it – decisions at the top, then drip them out over time’. Boris Johnson is reporting to be having ‘queasy second thoughts’ at the diplomatic unforced error/shot in own foot.

The government faces a formidable adversary in Andrew Mitchell, DFID’s former boss, who is doing some devastating media interviews (example: the cuts will lead to a 100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children) and whipping up opposition within the Tory party. Some pretty senior legal advice suggests the government ‘acted outside the law when it ditched its policy of spending 0.7% of national income on aid’.

I’m also hearing stories of just how much diplomatic damage is being caused at a national level. This from a colleague who works closely with UK aid programmes in a number of countries:

  • Nigeria is probably less likely to want to cooperate with UK on countering violent extremism/terrorism or to strike a trade deal beneficial to UK after it feels the UK has abandoned it in terms of providing previously promised/pledged advisory support.
  • It’s going to be a lot harder for the UK to claim a seat at the table in donor coordination efforts around humanitarian work in Syria and Palestine after such large cuts in both places, other donors won’t take such a ‘small player’ seriously – donor coordination in tricky places is something the UK prides itself on and is sometimes quite good at.
  • The essential point is that anywhere there has been a big cut, it is going to be a lot harder for a UK Ambassador/High Commissioner to get meetings/favours/desired action from senior ministers in the country they are stationed in – UK diplomacy relies on that kind of influence and access.

Back in June 2020, Malcolm Chalmers argued presciently that the institutional loser from the merger might actually be UK diplomacy. That seems to be what is happening – partnerships damaged beyond repair, and ministers and MPs exposed to ridicule when they tweet about ‘global Britain’ and its latest initiatives.

What happens next? It’s not too late for the UK government to end the current diplomatic and moral train wreck. Firstly, a face-saving exit has become available – compared with the forecasts in the March Budget, the latest data and forecasts suggest that Finance Minister Rishi Sunak will have a lot more money than expected come the Autumn. That clears the way for the UK to say ‘hey, thanks to our great stewardship of the economy, we are able to restore 0.7’ – the obvious time for such an ‘announcable’ being the G7 summit in Cornwall next month. That could clear the way for a string of initiatives and announcements in the run up to Glasgow.

Wishful thinking or good politics (and the right thing to do)? Fingers crossed.

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6 Responses to “The UK aid cuts have been a political & human train wreck so far, but that could/should change”
  1. Nicholas Colloff

    Thanks for this able summary of the predictable train wreck that was first the merger of FCO and DFID and the consequent loss of diplomatic traction (in my experience DFID was much more adept at projecting ‘soft power’ than the FCO, not least because it had a better/deeper grasp of the country it was working in); and, second, the cuts – both for the level and for how they were selected (drunken man in blindfold with pin comes to mind). Meanwhile, since the merger, the D part of the FCDO seems to have vanished and they do not appear to be let out! Sad, bitterly frustrating if you happen to be working with them; and, like trust lost will take years to reconfigure (if that is there is the political will to recover from this mess of their own making).

  2. Tina Mason

    I have read this alongside CGDevs findings that there has been little improvement in aid effectiveness in the decade since Busan, and ODIs conclusion that in the 5 years since the WHS humanitarians are still failing to ‘put people at the center of what they do’. So, on the one hand, yes recognising the concrete damage being done by the cuts and calling out political hypocrisy, but at the same time acknowledging that it is not just about restoring the 0.7 as is/was and maintaining the UK’s diplomatic prowess (which as an objective in itself seems to be the antithesis of the ‘decolonising aid’ revolution).

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Tina, There’s an important point here, which I forgot to include in the post. It’s a mistake to think that the budget and quality are independent variables – I’ve always said that if the aid budget is slashed, it is not the good stuff that will survive. So it’s much easier to reform aid with a steady/rising budget than in the present mad-axeman-on-the-loose scenario.

  3. Definitely need a new way of helping. I do not see that aid has affected people’s lives, it has been political, have supported individuals, has bought political influence which have promoted inequality.
    “Creatively find ways to unlock the inherent power of communities in determining their own development course – however they define it – and let the language of “beneficiaries” and “recipients be a thing of the past” Manifesto for Change

  4. If it weren’t for the facts that a) many millions of people who need support at this awful time will not get it, or b) for all the people, colleagues & friends in global devt who will lose jobs, or c) for the fact that DFID was really good at what it did and set world standards for aid & will never recover its strength, and d) that these cuts were done with such utter callousness & disregard for human suffering, I would say these aid cuts were great. They have finally ended Britain’s pretense at being a global player, the relic of its grotesque imperial history, putting the seal on its status as a crappy little island with awful weather.

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