The future of UK aid

What we've heard so far during our inquiry into changes to the UK aid budget


Published on 1 July 2021

Published on 1 July 2021

In 2020, as the covid-19 pandemic hit, the UK's economy contracted, as did the UK's Official Development Assistance (overseas aid) spending.  As part of our inquiry into changes to the UK aid budget, we asked for written evidence on these cuts and on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office's new focus areas for UK aid and whether they met the world's most pressing development challenges.

  • In November 2020, the UK Government decided to cut the ODA spending target from 0.7% (£15.2 million) to 0.5% of GNI from 2021.
  • It also decided that UK aid would focus on seven priority areas, known as the seven global challenges.

The seven global challenges are:

1. Climate and biodiversity
2. Global health security 
3. Girls’ education 
4. Humanitarian preparedness and response 
5. Science and technology 
6. Open societies and conflict resolution 
7. Economic development and trade 

Focus areas for UK aid


Additionally, the FCDO decided that UK aid programmes would focus on countries that align with UK’s economic, security and development priorities.

Contributors noted the changing character of UK aid, with a greater focus on other international policy aims and the notable lack of a specific focus on poverty reduction.

Sarah Champion, Chair of the International Development Select Committee, discussing cuts to the UK's aid budget, June 2021.

Sarah Champion, Chair of the International Development Select Committee, discussing cuts to the UK's aid budget, June 2021.

“While the focus towards the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East as well as taking an integrated approach across security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction may enable the leveraging of benefits for some of the world's most vulnerable, it will not reach most… It is unclear therefore if the Government’s priority is to focus aid on countries where the highest proportion of the most vulnerable in the world live, or to focus aid on countries where the UK can gain the most trade and diplomatic benefits.”
World Vision, written evidence to the inquiry
“[A]id spending will operate as an extension of foreign and security policy, and targeted accordingly to respond to the FCDO’s seven global challenges (which, notably, does not include tackling global poverty)”
Christian Aid, written evidence to the inquiry
“Poverty is a major driving factor behind all of the global challenges identified and its absence undermines the UK’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”
Charities Aid Foundation, written evidence to the inquiry
“The commitment to focus spending on countries where the UK’s economic, security and development interests are aligned will lead to relative increases in amounts of aid spent in Asia-Pacific and East Africa, two areas where there is seen to be potential to grow trade and investment partnerships. There is also an apparent shift away from supporting countries or regions in protracted conflict illustrated by expected cuts in spending in the Sahel region and the Middle East.”
ODI, written evidence to the inquiry

Contributors told us that even the FCDO’s priority areas wouldn’t be safe from cuts. The ONE Campaign analysed four sectors identified as priorities by the Foreign Secretary:

  • Humanitarian aid
  • Health
  • Education
  • Economic infrastructure and services

It told us that a reduced budget will make protecting these priority areas difficult. “[E]ven priority sectors such as health and education face being cut by 24% - and non-priority sectors face being cut completely,” ONE added.  

Gender and girls' education

There was a particular concern in the written evidence about the FCDO’s focus on girls' education. Organisations told us this was too narrow.

“The specific focus on girls’ education rather than gender equality more widely does amount to a missed opportunity and it seems counterintuitive to limit UK Aid efforts to focus exclusively on educational issues.”
Charities Aid Foundation, written evidence to the inquiry
“…this is a very narrow gender focus, dismissing not least those intersecting inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19, such as domestic violence, unpaid care, sexual and reproductive health, political participation and addressing backlash against progress made for women’s rights in many countries around the world. These are all areas that have direct impacts on the ability for girls to successfully complete their education.”
Institute of Development Studies, written evidence to the inquiry
“Gender equality cannot be narrowed to just girls' education. It is important to tackle barriers that stop girls getting into education such as child marriage, teenage pregnancy, female genital mutilation/cutting etc.”
Tearfund, written evidence to the inquiry
“…the UK Government has squarely focused on girls’ education as a proxy for all its gender equality work thereby failing to recognise that tackling gender inequality requires a holistic, multi-sectoral approach covering all different areas of gender discrimination”
Gender and Development Network, written evidence to the inquiry

The FCDO's approach to administering cuts to UK aid spending


We heard from organisations working across the development sector that the FCDO’s approach to administering the cuts to aid spending had been chaotic and will have an ongoing impact both for communities in lower-income countries and for the UK’s global standing.

From a programme to combat plastic pollution in the Galapagos Islands, to projects to provide essential medical support to girls in West Africa, projects across the board are experiencing severe cuts.

“It was extremely challenging to be given so little notice about the extraordinary budget cut. Communicating these cuts with long-standing international partners at such short notice was a challenging task, made more challenging by not being able to give an indication of what would happen beyond 2021-22.”
Royal Academy of Engineering, written evidence to the inquiry
“The cuts will not only deny many millions of people from the chance to access safe water, sanitation and hygiene, but they send the political message that basic services for the poor are no longer a priority.”
UK WASH network, written evidence to the inquiry
“The abruptness of the Government’s decision, the failure to consult with or even pre-warn other donors as well as the lack of consultation with civil society groups in the UK lay the Government open to accusations of incompetence.”
Frontline AIDS, written evidence to the inquiry

Contributors told us the approach was haphazard with poor communication

We received many examples of the practical difficulties created by the haphazard communication of the cuts to the UK's aid budget.

“Having a very short timescale in which to develop the closure budget meant that it was extremely difficult to plan for a responsible exit within the 90 days limit imposed by FCDO. This was also compounded by the fact the news was delivered just before a bank holiday weekend, giving us a day less to prepare the budget. Queries around the budget that needed further clarification from FCDO meant the 2-week time limit for budget submission was in reality reduced to a few days, once answers were received.”
The Leprosy Mission, written evidence to the inquiry
“For most contracts due to be cut, there is still no clarity, even at the time of writing this evidence i.e. two months into the financial year, about key information relating to the cuts themselves.”
Options, written evidence to the inquiry
“A multi-year programme was given only two days for planning what an exit would look like, and submitting those plans to FCDO, an astonishingly short time for such a substantial task with large potential impacts for programme participants. In another case, a programme was told that they had 24 hours to model what a budget cut of 25% would look like, heard nothing for weeks, and then were informed that in fact the programme would be cut by 70%.”
Plan International, written evidence to the inquiry
“...we are preparing to have to rapidly redirect resources away from other priority areas to underwrite all costs the FCDO will not cover during the close-out period. We are also having to emergency fundraise to keep our Bauchi office open and staff retained to continue the work we are committed to. This would be extremely difficult in any climate but is a mountain to climb in the post-COVID fundraising climate.”
Women For Women, written evidence to the inquiry

Impact on lower-income countries

Contributors told us that the cuts would have a significant impact on communities in lower-income countries.  

“The knock-on effect is that girls and women living in acute poverty are now losing their access to the vital health services and family planning that allowed them to stay in education; as the rug of support is pulled away, so are crucial community relationships and local trust, meaning that a temporary cut to UK aid, even for just a year, has long-lasting consequences.”
Results UK, written evidence to the inquiry on the cancellations of and cuts to projects across the world, from Tanzania to Nepal.
“Stopping mass drug administration (MDA) could result in prolonging the process by many years, especially given that we do not know when funding will be reinstated. The impact on countries that are nearing onchocerciasis elimination, for example Ghana, cannot be underestimated. Countries who are at the last mile of elimination, with ASCEND funding in 2021 were set to conduct a survey to determine if they can stop MDA. Without this survey, the twice-yearly MDAs in high-risk regions will need to continue, at a higher cost to the state.” 
Vision for the Commonwealth , written evidence to the inquiry on the practical impact to their work on eliminating preventable blindness due to cuts to the ASCEND programme

Do cuts disproportionately affect women and girls?


Contributors argued that cuts to the aid budget would have a disproportionate impact on women and girls.

As part of the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, UK aid should be distributed in a way that is “likely to contribute to reducing poverty in a way that is likely to reduce inequality between persons of different gender”. Additionally, the Government has committed to gender equality through the Strategic Vision for Equality and the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. 

What is becoming increasingly clear but not surprising in light of the choices that have been made to cut investment in women and girls’ rights is that they are disproportionately affected.”
Action Aid, written evidence to the inquiry
“Analysis of estimated funding between 2019 and 2022 compared to 2015 to 2018, indicates that gender equality focused programming is being severely affected, and women and girls will suffer most from reductions in funding to critical sectors.”
CARE International UK, written evidence to the inquiry

CARE International UK told us this will result in an estimated 20 million women and girls who won’t be reached by programming, made up of:   

  • 700,000 fewer girls supported by girls' education programmes 
  • 2 million fewer women supported by humanitarian assistance,
  • 8 million fewer women and girls supported by nutrition interventions
  • 9 million fewer women supported to access clean water and sanitation

Sexual and reproductive health 

Programmes focused on sexual and reproductive health have suffered severe cuts. 

  • Plan International told us that the Government has cut its funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s supplies programme by 85%, reducing their contribution over two years from £152m to £23m. 
  • CARE told us about the Women’s Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) programme. No further funding has been allocated to the programme, originally designed to cover a three-year project period. Given another 21 months, it is predicted that the services provided could avert an estimated additional 7.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.7 million unsafe abortions and 22,000 maternal deaths. 

Follow our inquiry into the future of UK aid


The International Development Committee is conducting ongoing scrutiny work into the changes to the aid budget. Work in this area includes scrutiny of the cut from spending 0.7% to 0.5% of UK GNI on ODA, the merger of the FCO and DFID and the conclusions of the Integrated Review.

All the written evidence submitted to this inquiry can be found on our committee website.

House of Commons International Development Select Committee membership as of 30 June 2021. Link shows current select committee membership [link to relevant page on ]

The International Development Committee was established to scrutinise the spending, administration and policies of the Department for International Development (DFID) and monitors the expenditure of Official Development Assistance (ODA) by other UK government departments.

Images courtesy of the Department for International Development via Flickr