Aid budget cuts 'have damaged FCDO's reputation as a reliable donor' – perm sec

Perm sec warns of "damaging impact on relationships with partner governments" as support to Sudan slashed by 40%
Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

23 Apr 2024

Cuts to the FCDO’s official development assistance budget saw the UK's humanitarian support to Sudan drop by 40%, among other significant cuts, and damaged the department’s reputation as a reliable donor, the department's permanent secretary has said.

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office perm sec Sir Philip Barton revealed which countries were hit hardest by reductions in bilateral spending as a result of the need to make £1.7bn in cuts to Official Development Assistance spend in 2022-23, in a letter to MPs.

Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe received between £14.7m and £39.8m less than their original allocation in 2022-23, with Sudan losing the biggest proportion of its expected aid and Afghanistan losing the highest sum.

Barton's letter also says that, alongside the impact of budget reductions on programmes and their beneficiaries, FCDO embassies, high commissions and consulates “noted the damaging impact on relationships with partner governments and other donors and the overall damage to the FCDO’s reputation as a reliable donor”.

The FCDO which is in charge of ensuring aid spend does not go above 0.5% of gross national income and is the ODA “spender and saver of last resort”, paused all “non-essential” overseas aid spending for four months in 2022 due to the rising and unpredictable Home Office takeover of the budget for domestic asylum costs, which saw the Home Office spend £2bn more than it was initially allocated.

Barton's letter, sent to the Public Accounts Committee on 16 April and published yesterday, shows that, along with the 40% reduction in Sudan’s ODA allocation, Zimbabwe’s allocation dropped by 35%. Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan respectively received 18%, 17% and 14% less than originally planned (see table below).

Barton's letter comes four months after a previous exchange between Barton and PAC in December. On 6 December, Barton wrote to PAC chair Meg Hillier to set out some of the reductions that the department had needed to make, including delaying or paring back projects aimed at meeting climate commitments, tackling health inequalities and driving economic reform. On 18 December, Hillier requested more information, asking for Barton to detail the five countries worst affected by the cutbacks and the impact on those countries. Barton apologised in his latest letter for the delay.

Five countries with biggest reductions to ODA allocation in 2022-23
Country

Initial 2022-23 ODA allocation

2022-23 ODA outturn

In-year ODA reduction

Percentage reduction
Afghanistan

£286,000,000

£246,182,000

£39,818,000

14%
Sudan

£51,728,000

£31,071,000

£20,657,000

40%
Ethiopia

£ 103,486,000

£85,222,000

£18,264,000

18%
Nigeria

£ 101,758,000

£84,071,000

£17,687,000

17%
Zimbabwe

£41,913,000

£27,178,000

£14,735,000

35%

Nutrition, healthcare and political representation: key programmes hit by cuts

In the letter, Barton also set out the most notable changes to programmes in the five most affected countries. 

The reductions to the FCDO's budget in Afghanistan saw the UK provide £16.7m less than planned to the World Food Programme's rations programme, which provided food to help the most vulnerable and those living in remote areas to get through winter. The cuts also saw an £8.5m reduction to the FCDO's basic services programme in Afghanistan, a 41% cut; while a £10m contribution to the World Health Organisation was cancelled, although the letter states that "polio progress was supported through central FCDO funding". A £4.5m demining programme was delayed, but resumed in 2023-24.

In Sudan, the main humanitarian programme was slashed by £11.4m (49%), reducing the number of people supported by one-third compared to original plans, the letter states. A further £3.8m (45%) cut to the FCDO's governance programme in the country hindered support to improve political representation and participation for women and young people.

The cutbacks also reduced independent oversight of Sudan programmes, "with greater emphasis on self-reported results", the letter says.  MPs warned in March that "fraud detection and oversight have been diminished by cuts to ODA and the merger of DfID and the FCO". Other reductions to the Sudan allocation were made by "scaling down programmes where changes in context had made them less effecvtive, or where activities could be delayed until 2023-24", the letter stated. 

In Ethiopia, £10.6m in cuts to a health programme – an 87% cut – reduced the UK's support for maternal and newborn care, while a refugee and migration programme that the FCDO plans to phase out by 2024-25 was slashed by 51%. The main humanitarian programme in Ethopia was reduced by £1.9m (5.6%). "Uncertainty about the volume of savings needed caused some delays to social protection and nutrition by several months," Barton said. The impact of cuts in Ethiopia was mitigated by additional payments to the affected programmes in 2023-24 "and by working closely with other donors to reduce the impact", he added. 

The cuts in Nigeria saw a primary education programme reduced by £7.3m (31%),  including £2m less support for an education project in conflict-affected northeast Nigeria. An economic development programme was reduced by £3.4m (64%), limiting private sector investments to support the generation of jobs, incomes and growth. And a £1.8m (16%) cut to a health programme reduced Nigeria's ability to procure family planning commodities, affecting access to sexual and reproductivity health choices. Other programme reductions were managed by delaying activities until 2023-24, the letter states. 

Finally, in Zimbabwe, the cuts included a £7.1m (83%) reduction to two humanitarian programmes that meant a planned second phase of work on resilience was cancelled and the UK provided just 10% of its planned support to food insecure Zimbabweans. "Instead, the FCDO pivoted its efforts into policy influencing, building long-term resilience and harnessing disaster risk insurance that helped over 13,000 drought affected people in Zimbabwe during 2022," the letter said.

The cuts also included a £4.3m (28%) reduction to education programming, which halved school support for girls and boys in the poorest communities; and a £1.5m (20%) reduction to a health programme, which limited poor Zimbabweans' access to medication and healthcare. There were also reductions to programmes on governance, economic stability, and women and girls.

Barton also set out how the FCDO's aid budget situation has since improved, including plans in place to double bilateral support to low-income countries.

"While the 2022-23 context was particularly challenging, in 2023-24 an increase in the value of 0.5% of NI and a reduction in forecasts for non-FCDO elements of ODA resulted in the FCDO retaining £1.5bn of ODA instead of sacrificing it in the FCDO’s role as ODA spender and saver of last resort," he said. 

"The planned ODA allocations published in the FCDO Annual Report and Accounts 2022-23 show that in 2024-25 the FCDO will nearly double its bilateral support to low-income countries from 2023-24, including increases to each of the five countries listed below.

This will be used to help address humanitarian crises, support women and girls and protect the most vulnerable, while delivering value for money for taxpayers and producing results on the ground. For example, helping million with food and water, medical care, sanitation, shelter, protection, livelihoods, and education in Afghanistan and providing nutrition, water and hygiene to up to 500,000 children under the age of five in Sudan."

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