Where UK aid cuts bite deepest – stories from the sharp end


As women and children lose out on programmes that could change their lives, Britain’s reputation has been diminished

Cyclones and flooding have had a devastating impact on Bangladesh, causing a series of humanitarian crises.
Cyclones and flooding have had a devastating impact on Bangladesh, causing a series of humanitarian crises. Photograph: Kazi Salahuddin

Bukola Onyishi was delighted when she found out that the British government was going to help her realise a dream in one of the poorest parts of Nigeria. With a grant agreement that was meant to last for three years, she was finally going to be able to launch a female empowerment programme for the women of Bauchi state in the country’s north-east, many of whom had fled the militant Islamist group Boko Haram and were now living in abject poverty in camps for the internally displaced.

“The grant made us very happy,” says Onyishi, country director for Women for Women International. “[Bauchi] was the right place to be.” Setting it up was not easy: Onyishi and her colleagues had a job to persuade community elders of the project’s value, encountering deep-seated patriarchal beliefs that surprised even her in their obstinacy. But they came round in the end, and the first 12-month empowerment programme began, teaching 1,200 carefully selected women about everything from their basic human rights to numeracy and business skills.

The results of the first year were impressive: from almost nothing, 62% of women who graduated from the course reported daily earnings of at least $1.90, the international poverty line. “At the start of the programme I had no means of earning an income … Now we all have individual bank accounts – something I would never have thought of while living my old life,” one of the participants, Saratu, wrote on a blog. And then, in the spring, came bad news: the project’s funding was being prematurely axed as part of the UK government’s foreign aid cuts. It was, Onyishi says, “a rude shock”. She had to go back to the people to whom she had made promises, and tell them she wasn’t going to be able to keep them.

Women queue to vote, Malkohi refugee camp, Nigeria
Women queue at a polling station at the Malkohi refugee camp in Adamawa state, Nigeria. Malkohi is a camp for people internally displaced by the conflict with the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram. Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

“It was pretty difficult to go back and say ‘what we said, it’s not possible’. It was the first time in 20 years of working in this sector that I’ve seen anything like that. Because of the nature of the work, because of our society, to win people’s trust is pretty difficult,” she says. If she could speak directly to Boris Johnson, she would tell him to look beyond the statistics to the people behind them: “Let him just know that the decision he took is about millions of lives … It doesn’t look like anybody cared. We thought they cared and it looks like nobody cared.”

Last week, as he stood up in the Commons before a vote that government whips had sprung on MPs with 24 hours’ notice, the prime minister tried to insist he did care. Facing a rebellion by Tory MPs over the government’s decision last year to reduce the spending target from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, he trumpeted the transformative power of aid – before arguing that a return to 0.7% would be fiscally imprudent and a blow to the youth of Britain: “Every pound we spend on aid has to be borrowed, and in fact represents not our money, but money that we are taking from future generations.”

In the end, the rebellion was snuffed out. Despite facing stinging criticism from former Tory prime ministers (John Major said the motion bore “the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”; Theresa May said it was breaking a promise to the world’s poor, and defied a three-line whip to vote against it), the government won comfortably by 333 votes to 298. Many fear that aid spending will not return to its previous levels for years, if at all.

“We’re looking at a long-term cut now. And it just seems bizarre when need in the world is so great,” says Danny Harvey, executive director of Concern Worldwide UK. “The UN has said that last year, globally, there was an 18% rise in people who didn’t have enough to eat. The converse of that is that we’re seeing shortfalls in humanitarian funding. You’ve got increasing hunger, driven by conflict, climate change and particularly Covid … And you’ve got the UK stepping back and reducing spending. It just isn’t sending a very strong message about what ‘Global Britain’ means in terms of that sort of responsibility.”

Three thousand miles away, in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, James Wani watched the debate and subsequent vote with colleagues involved in peace-building in the world’s youngest country. “[We] were glued to the TV, watching the proceedings as they unfolded, hoping that the people, especially those in the decision-making positions, would make a decision to be in solidarity with the people of this country,” he says. The result was not what they had hoped for. “It’s a very worrisome decision,” he says.

Wani, country director for Christian Aid in South Sudan, had particular reason to pay attention, given that a project he had been working on was one of those abruptly cut earlier this year. A peace-building effort involving the church – which still commands respect in a society riven with conflict – it has helped facilitate discussion and, according to Wani, played a pivotal role behind the scenes in the 2020 Juba peace agreement. In a country that sees regular outbreaks of violence and where peace is still extremely fragile, the project brought a crucial extra layer of support, he says, and the unexpected move to axe it threw several negotiations up in the air.

A woman stands at her burnt tea shop in a market in Gumuruk, South Sudan
A woman stands in the burnt-out ruins of her tea shop in Gumuruk, South Sudan, after her village was attacked last month by an armed group. Photograph: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP/Getty Images

“I think the conversation [about the cut] was just two months [before] the end of the project, when we already had a number of critical peace-building activities on high gear. They really needed to not be reversed but moved forward because of the sensitivity, and the risk, around not taking it forward. It was very shocking news for us. And it’s still something that we are still dealing with in terms of its aftermath.”

South Sudan ranks consistently as one of the countries requiring the most humanitarian support; a recent UN overview said levels of food insecurity were at their highest since independence. About 8.3 million people require humanitarian assistance, while 1.4 million children under five are acutely malnourished.

Yet the total cut in funding to the country by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is estimated at 59%, according to a document leaked in March.

Wani says the axing of his project has already had an impact, preventing colleagues from responding to flare-ups in areas where they had previously been working.

“Just yesterday, there was inter-communal violence in one of the areas [Warrap state] where we already initiated that dialogue. In that situation … it’s quite difficult to find an institution [other than the church] that has the respect, that can work beyond the conflict lines of this community. It’s quite difficult for the government to address. So these are the kinds of things that are at stake.”

Though she is in a different country, fighting different battles, Fiona Mclysaght, Concern’s country director in Bangladesh, shares some of his frustration. Since 2019, she had been working on a multimillion-pound project focused on helping 2.6 million of the extreme poor gain access to healthcare. They had set up telemedicine booths connecting people in remote areas to doctors in the cities; they had distributed vouchers enabling thousands of people to access free healthcare; they had helped train frontline medical staff. All of this had proved crucial during the first waves of Covid, but now the country is facing its deadliest outbreak the project has been disbanded and Mclysaght feels powerless to help.

“It’s really heartbreaking for all the teams and the partners that we’re not able to respond. We should be responding and we are asked to respond, but we’re not in a position to,” she says. “We’re scrambling around for funds at the moment, to support the communities that we’ve left behind now.”

Girls at school in Nepal
Marginalised No More is a three-year multi-partner programme focused on transforming education and life prospects for 7,000 girls of Nepal’s Musahar caste whose literacy levels are below 4%. Photograph: Street Child UK

A lot of “hollow words” are spoken about the need to tackle Covid globally, says Mclysaght. At the G7 in Cornwall recently, leaders including Johnson vowed to step up efforts to get vaccinations out to the developing world. But she is seeing first-hand, she says, how a decision made at a political level in London is wreaking havoc among some of the most vulnerable people on earth – people hit by a triple whammy of poverty, climate crisis and Covid.

“I think sometimes when the decisions are made, decisions at political level, people don’t see the human impact, and the impact is immediate. People kind of look at statistics and funding but it has such a devastating impact on women and children and wider communities.”

Young Congolese students
Young students attend a course on identifying unexploded ordnance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

A moment of particular sorrow came when, just months after giving them out, local partners had to explain to people that the health vouchers were no longer usable. “It was heartbreaking. They were completely bewildered,” she says.

Mclysaght is far from the only person to be struck by a disconnect between lofty government rhetoric and the reality of the FCDO cuts on the ground.

Another of the G7 pledges was to get 40 million more girls into education by 2026 – a laudable goal, but one which Tom Dannatt, CEO of the charity Street Child, heard with befuddlement, because until recently he had been running two programmes aimed at getting girls into school – one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one in Nepal – and they have just had their funding cut.

“It’s emotionally complex when you see these big announcements … [These] were excellent programmes up and running, serving the most marginalised girls in extreme situations. So you’re taking from the left hand to make a big pronouncement out of the right hand. It’s nonsense that is destructive for taxpayers and obviously for [these] communities,” he says. Street Child projects lost about £1m across four programmes, he says, and there will “categorically” be girls who will miss out on school as a result.

“When you go into fragile impoverished communities and make promises and ask them to trust you, that’s holy work. We have to find a way of filling some of these gaps. At the moment we’re begging them for patience,” he says. Like Onyishi and Mclysaght, he feels keenly the loss of trust that had been so long in the building and was so quick to fall away. Whole teams had to be stood down at 90 days’ notice. Some in the communities had been “extremely suspicious of us at the outset”, he says. “And now they’re turning round to us and saying: ‘Yeah, we didn’t think you were serious.’”

It is not only the charity’s reputation that has suffered, he says, but Britain’s as well: “In that IDP [internally displaced people] camp, in that village, at the very frontline of development and humanitarian work, the name of our country has slipped considerably.”

One such place is Marodi Jeh, a region in Somaliland that was going to reap the benefit of a £2.5m project aimed at improving healthcare for pregnant women – mostly IDPs – and their babies. The maternal mortality rate in Somaliland, a former British protectorate that declared unilateral independence from Somalia in 1991, is one of the highest in the world. So Nura Aided Ibrahim had high hopes for the programme, which had been due to start this month. “Community champions” were going to visit women in IDP camps during the evenings when they were most likely to be in and make sure they were aware of pregnancy risk signs and their nearest healthcare services. NHS doctors and nurses were going to work with colleagues at the Hargeisa hospital to help improve care for women with obstetric emergencies.

“We were excited about it,” says Ibrahim, country director for Thet (Tropical Health and Education Trust). “We were expecting that this project would contribute to the reduction of maternal mortality rates in Somaliland … but then we realised that the British will not go ahead.” Ibrahim says she understands the financial pressures that the pandemic has caused but says a country like Somaliland “where the healthcare system is weak anyway, and primary healthcare systems depend [on] aid” just cannot take the cuts. “So we feel very sorry,” she says, “because many women who might not get these services will die.”

Schoolchildren, Democratic Republic of the Congo
The UK charity Street Child was involved in a programme of primary school education for girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Street Child UK

Laura Hucks, director of King’s Global Health Partnerships, which would have partnered Thet in Somaliland on the training of medical staff, says it is “nonsensical” that funding for healthcare is being cut at a moment when the importance of robust healthcare systems is clear for all to see. And she agrees with Dannatt that the cuts are dealing a blow to Britain’s reputation abroad. When she had to tell colleagues on the ground that the programme was not going to happen “that was obviously not enjoyable”, she says. “And there’s great disappointment, because I think Somaliland sees the UK as a trusted partner, and I think it’s damaged our relationships with partners.”

An FCDO spokesperson said: “The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid.

“We will still spend more than £10bn on aid this year. We have just committed £430m towards the Global Partnership for Education to help boost global education over the next five years, will spend £400m of UK aid on girl’s education around the world this year and are donating 100 million Covid-19 vaccines to other countries. We are committed to returning to spending 0.7% of our national income on aid when the fiscal situation allows.”

In Nigeria, Onyishi is desperate to keep some form of the empowerment programme alive and says she will struggle on with a much-reduced project for fewer women- “definitely not the original number”. In a recent article for Devex, she urged the government with characteristic directness to reconsider their funding cuts. “Women in Bauchi state have experienced crisis and conflict on top of poverty,” she wrote. “The UK government allowed us to offer them hope for a brighter future, and now we are being told to snatch that offer of hope away … My plea to [the] FCDO, to UK citizens, and to anyone who will listen is this: Please don’t let down the women of Bauchi state, please don’t take away support from communities that need you now more than ever, and please fulfil the promises you made.”

The overseas spending target explained

The UN has a target for countries to spend 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) on official development assistance (ODA), something the UK first achieved in 2013. In 2020, the UK was one of only seven countries reporting to the OECD that they had met the target. Only Germany spent more than the UK on aid in absolute terms ($29bn, compared to the UK’s $19bn) and in proportional terms (0.74% of GNI vs 0.7%). Since 2015 the government has been under statutory duty to meet the target, but it has now cited the economic impact of the pandemic as a reason for temporarily lowering it to 0.5%, with the cut remaining in place until there is no more borrowing for day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling. This was what MPs voted in favour of last Tuesday.

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