Details of the cuts of more than 40% in the UK bilateral aid spending programme have been set out by the Foreign Office for the first time, including huge cuts to humanitarian aid, girls’ equality and climate.
It is the first time the government has outlined how the aid axe is intended to fall in 2021 as ministers cut the aid programme from 0.7% of UK gross national income to 0.5%, a decision now endorsed in a vote by MPs, but not peers, and likely to remain in force for many years.
Ministers say the UK aid programme will remain the third largest in the world, and the cuts were forced on the government by the scale of the hit to the economy caused by Covid.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also says the figures on overseas development assistance, revealed in an annexe to the department’s annual report and accounts published this week, are projections, and extra funding may be made available if need arises. Aid to Afghanistan, for instance, has been doubled in recent weeks due to the Taliban capture of the country and the resulting humanitarian disaster.
But the previous foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was frequently accused of failing to spell out the real implications of the cuts, focusing instead on continuing government priority areas.
The cuts also show that east Africa, once seen as a priority by the UK, has suffered severely, as have humanitarian disaster areas such as Yemen and Syria in the Middle East, and Pakistan.
Programme cuts include Ethiopia, down from £240m in 2020-21 to a budget of £107.5m in 2021-22. Somalia’s aid has been slashed from £121m to £71.2m, while South Sudan’s aid fall from £135.4m to £68.4m. Tanzania is projected to drop from £89.1m to £28.5m.
Overall the level of aid in the east and central Africa region is being reduced from £1.1bn to £545.9m.
In west Africa aid is being cut from £708.9m to £345.2m, with aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo falling from £121m to £56m, and Nigeria from £209m to £95m. The joint Sahel department will face a cut from £61.4m to £23.8m.
Cuts in aid to Pakistan and Bangladesh mean the level of UK spending in India and the Indian Ocean region falls from £358.6m to £201.6m. UK aid to Bangladesh drops from £189.8m to £72.6m, while in Pakistan, aid falls from £159m to £97.6.
Budget cuts in the Indo-Pacific, the UK’s new priority area, are minimal, although Myanmar faces a reduction in aid from £91.9m to £49.5m.
A former priority area for the UK, aid to parts of the Middle East has been slashed. Aid to Lebanon falls from £84.9m to £13.1m, Syria down from £153.5m to £48m while Yemen faces a drop from £220.5m to £82.4m. The occupied Palestinian territories see a cut from £79.9m to £26.9m.
In terms of cuts by theme, the accounts suggest overall humanitarian aid will be reduced from £546m to £278m; education, gender and equalities budgets face a cut of £308.8m to £124.3m and, despite Covid, health sees a reduction from £1.158bn to £915m. Climate is cut from £330m to £214m. There is a small increase in aid to the World Health Organization, but cuts to the Asian Development Bank.
The total level of aid budget in 2020 was £14.4bn of which £9bn was classified as bilateral aid.
The report reveals that the Foreign Office has cut its aid spend to China by 95% to £0.9m, targeted on specific programmes that promote British values of open societies and human rights. No money is given directly to the government. A significant proportion of 2020-21 programme spend in China was on former cross-Whitehall Prosperity Fund programmes, which have been reflected in the Prosperity Fund section of the annexe.
The accounts also reveal that the Foreign Office has assets valued at £12.5m still tied up in Afghanistan to which it does not have access.
The cuts do not take into account reductions enforced in 2019 owing to a shrinkage in the size of the economy, but the scale of those cuts appear to have been smaller than at one time projected.
The Treasury has ruled that the 0.7% target will not be restored until debt is falling and there is no deficit in day-to-day spending. That assessment will be made by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Sarah Champion, the chair of the international development committee – which scrutinises UK aid, called the cuts to the east Africa region “outrageous and hypocritical”.