UK aid to individual African countries is being cut by 66% this year and aid to the Indo-Pacific region by 68%, aid agencies have said on the basis of new figures provided by the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
The scale of the cuts was described by a former Conservative Foreign Office minister, Liz Sugg, as “difficult to comprehend”. She said the impact on education was being likened by experts to “acts of violence against the world’s poorest women and girls”.
Raab revealed at a Lords select committee on Tuesday that UK bilateral aid to specific African countries would be £764m this year, a figure confirmed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) on Wednesday.
The clearest comparable figure for 2020 was £2.22bn, aid agencies said, and in 2019 it was £2.44bn. The UK will no longer be in the front rank of countries giving bilateral aid in Africa.
Raab has said half of the £764m will go to east Africa, meaning other parts of Africa face cuts of well over 50%. Bilateral aid to the Indo-Pacific region will fall to £500m, a cut of 68% on the previous year.
The FCDO said the £764m figure was not fully comparable with 2020 and 2019 since the figures for these two years included regional or Africa-wide aid that went to multilateral bodies such as the Africa Development Bank.
But it could not say the amount that had been set aside for African multilateral bodies in those years, and former government aid officials rejected the explanation, saying the comparisons were exact.
Ministers have been pursuing a strategy of giving minimal information on the impact of the cuts, focusing instead solely on where UK aid will be spent, but the strategy appears to be unravelling in the face of a continued flow of leaks about specific cuts, including to funds for polio eradication, water sanitation and research.
Lady Sugg challenged Raab’s claim that country budgets did not yet exist, saying that from her knowledge they were routinely available at this stage. She challenged him to publish the figures by the end of the month.
She said the cuts and their impacts were only now starting to be felt, and they were coming just as the UK prepares to chair three global summits.
“We have high ambition to use the G7 to lead efforts to build back better, yet we are the only G7 country not to be increasing our development spending in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said. “We are using our Girls Partnership for Education summit to galvanise investment in education and yet we are our cutting our investment in education by 25%, and by 40% on the average [over the] last four years, and for the climate change summit we are cutting investment in the very countries we are trying to encourage to come forward with ambitious plans on climate.”
Sugg accused ministers of providing information in a form that prevented parliament from scrutinising the government. “We are now well into the new financial year. These budgets obviously exist and they need to be published, including the country and thematic breakdown, by the end of May,” she said.
The head of WaterAid has said cuts to British aid spending on water and sanitation in the world’s poorest countries will cause the coronavirus pandemic to spread and increase the risk of mutation, as well as costing lives.
The UK is to reduce funding for lifesaving water, sanitation and hygiene (Wash) projects by 80%, according to a leaked memo first reported in the Telegraph. Experts described the level of cuts as “savage”, pointing out that handwashing is a key line of defence against coronavirus.
A document prepared for the FCDO revealed that the overall budget for Wash would be cut by 64% in 2021/22, and bilateral aid funding for clean water would be reduced by 80%.
WaterAid estimates the Wash cuts will leave 10 million people without adequate water and sanitation and will undermine “all areas of human development”.
Tim Wainwright, the charity’s chief executive, said: “It will cause the pandemic to spread and make the chances of mutation higher because more people will have it. It will undermine the efforts to prevent future pandemics.”
A network of UK NGOs and academics have written to Raab condemning the Wash cuts as an “act of self-harm”. They describe the cuts as “unethical” amid a pandemic, and an “end of an era of bold leadership” by the UK at a time it is most needed.
The letter was signed by 50 NGOs and experts including Tearfund, Cafod and Water Witness International.