“Drastic and highly disruptive” cuts to the aid budget have damaged Britain’s international reputation, a watchdog has said in a review of UK aid over the past four years.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) said disruption to aid caused by external shocks including the coronavirus pandemic was “compounded by frequent changes of political leadership”, Brexit and the merging of Whitehall departments.
Sarah Champion, the MP who chairs the Commons International Development Committee, said the review underlined that the government’s 2020 decision to fold the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office was “a bad move, at a bad time”.
Aid work has been impaired by a “strategic drift”, with a succession of new ministers changing direction amid financial pressures from a series of sharp budget reductions, according to the ICAI.
In 2020, Rishi Sunak temporarily slashed the target to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on official development assistance (ODA) to 0.5 per cent when he was chancellor, with the lower goal still in place due to ongoing economic pressures.
Nearly 30 per cent of the annual aid budget has also been diverted from the poorest countries to meeting the costs of hosting refugees, mainly from Ukraine, in the UK.
This has “severely undermined” Britain’s ability to respond to global crises and has “damaged the UK’s reputation”, said the ICAI, which scrutinises the impact of UK aid.
UK bilateral humanitarian aid, for example, fell by half between 2020 and 2021.
The report said the EU withdrawal was the first of many challenges since 2019, as civil servants were redeployed to Brexit planning.
This led to development work being deprioritised, including on humanitarian crises.
Then the Covid-19 crisis brought much turbulence to the programme, with the withdrawal of UK staff from 36 countries affecting the delivery of aid on the ground.
Boris Johnson’s government added to these pressures, the ICAI said, by rushing through the aid departments merger at an “inopportune time” when it was dealing with the pandemic.
The watchdog said the reorganisation left the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) “inward-focused and distracted” and with depleted development expertise.
ICAI chief commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton said: “The past four years of this commission have been a turbulent time for the aid programme, with the disruptive merger of DFID and FCO coming at a time when Whitehall was already under extreme pressure managing the impact of the pandemic and successive sharp reductions to the budget.
“ICAI’s work has shown time and again how UK aid can make a real difference if the approach is right, and as the government moves forward with its new International Development White Paper, it is important to retain a strong focus on ensuring aid is being used effectively and reaching communities that need it most around the world.”
International Development Committee chair Ms Champion said: “This independent review underlines what has become sadly apparent over the last four years: the FCO-DFID merger was a bad move, at a bad time, that has brought few detectable gains.
“Coming alongside ongoing cuts to the UK aid budget, it has broadly undermined the UK’s international standing and the impact of UK aid spending.
“The government’s mean-spirited use of our reduced ODA budget on a dysfunctional asylum system in the UK has spectacularly backfired, and by the FCDO’s own assessment its budget cuts are disproportionately hitting women, girls and disabled people – people who are already the poorest and most marginalised in the world.”
Gideon Rabinowitz, director of policy and advocacy at NGO network Bond, said: “The UK aid cuts and the rushed FCDO merger have harmed the UK’s reputation and caused disruption to the sector.
“The UK government needs to strengthen its engagement with local communities and work long-term with partner countries to truly restore its reputation as a global partner in development. We would also like to see a credible plan to return UK aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GNI.”
ActionAid UK chief executive Dr Halima Begum said: “The findings of the ICAI review are nothing short of disastrous for those whose lives are supported by UK aid.
“Sadly, this report reveals that over the last three years since DFID was dismantled, the FCDO has presided over a series of cuts and own goals that leave little doubt Britain’s reputation in the world has been diminished and sent progress in areas like gender equality into reverse.”
An FCDO spokesperson said: “The UK is a leader in international development spending nearly £12.8bn on aid in 2022, and as ICAI has recognised in this report our aid programmes continue to make a positive difference for people around the world.
“As one department, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has brought together the best of what we do in development and foreign policy to promote the UK overseas and deal with global challenges.
“We are due to nearly double the aid budget for lower income countries next year, including in Africa where aid will rise from £646m to £1.364bn, helping to reduce poverty, alleviate the devastating impacts of climate change and protect the world’s most vulnerable people.”