UK government quietly cuts international aid by £2.9 billion as MPs leave parliament for summer

Dominic Raab accused of 'callous' move in time of international emergency

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 23 July 2020 08:46 BST
Boris Johnson says multibillion foreign aid budget should be spent to advance Britain's 'political and commercial interests'

The government has quietly cut the UK's foreign aid budget by £2.9 billion, blaming the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, announced the cuts without fanfare as MPs left parliament for their summer recess, meaning they could not be immediately scrutinised by parliament.

The government insists a "line by line" review of aid projects had prioritised the "40 most vulnerable countries" but aid organisations warned that the cuts were falling at a time of humanitarian crisis. Opposition critics branded the policy "callous".

Mr Raab insisted the UK would still meet its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI (gross national income) on aid despite the reductions.

Sarah Champion, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons International Development Committee, said it was "poor practice" to announce the cuts on the last day before summer recess – and thus avoid any opportunity for MPs to provide scrutiny.

Mr Raab said in a letter to the chair that the cuts were a reaction "to the potential shrinkage in our economy, and therefore a decrease in the value of the 0.7 per cent commitment".

"We have identified a £2.9bn package of reductions in the government’s planned ODA spend so we can proceed prudently for the remainder of 2020," he said.

“The package I have agreed with the prime minister maintains our flexibility and enables the government to manage our ODA spend against an uncertain 0.7 per cent position.

“It will see some reductions made now, with arrangements in place to tailor spending further during the remaining months as we start to gain a clearer economic picture.”

Ms Champion said: “The announcement today raises more questions than it answers. The letter speaks of delaying activity and stopping some spending – what is the timescale on this?

“If it is with immediate effect, do the projects know or will they find out via the media as Dfid staff did about the merger? Is there an overarching strategy in place?

“Will the evaluation of the impact of these cuts be made public? Where is the scrutiny? Clearly there has been no consultation, but to release this news literally as parliament rises so there can be no scrutiny by MPs is poor practice.”

The government announced earlier this year that it would be abolishing the Department for International Development and giving responsibility for aid to the Foreign Office – a process it describes as a "merger". The move was criticised by aid organisations who said Dfid has unique expertise in the field and that they were not consulted.

Aid groups said Covid-19 had created "both a health and an economic crisis" and that if cuts had to be made they should be to investment development finance rather than on the ground projects delivering healthcare, water, sanitation, education and food.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab approved the aid cut 

Liberal Democrat international development spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain said: “For so many vulnerable people in need around the world, UK international aid has made the difference between life and death.

“Despite previous assurances that clearly weren’t worth the paper they were written on, we now see the callous Tories for who they really are.

“This devastating cut to international aid is a clear sign that the UK is abandoning the world stage. Because of this Government more children will have their life chances blighted by poverty.
“Now more than ever we need oversight and scrutiny by retaining the ICAI, the International Development Committee and a Development Minister in Cabinet."

Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, the UK network for NGOs said: "At a time when we are facing the biggest health and humanitarian crisis of our lifetime, we would urge the government to ringfence aid going towards our global Covid-19 response and any aid that supports marginalised people facing poverty, inequality, disease, conflict and climate change.

"Covid-19 has created both a health and an economic crisis. This makes it even more imperative that any aid cuts must not be shouldered by people who are already bearing the brunt of this double tragedy and as a result are being pushed further into poverty.

"The government should instead look to cut programmes that have been found not to deliver for the world’s poorest people. ODA funding that has been called out for being ineffective in terms of poverty alleviation include the CDC Group - the UK’s development finance institution.

"The government should rethink its use of 'promissory notes' this year so that funding promised in advance to both the CDC and multilateral institutions is instead reallocated towards programmes that are already up and running, delivering healthcare, water and sanitation, education and food, but are now facing cuts because of the inevitable fall in GNI."

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