The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office went ahead with aid cuts despite being told they would particularly harm women, girls and disabled people, a leaked report suggests.
A leaked FCDO equalities assessment report – which looked into the impact of the government slashing Official Development Assistance from 0.75 to 0.5% of gross national income – shows the department was aware of the impact the cuts would have on the most marginalised people.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced the “temporary” cut to the aid budget in the 2020 Spending Review, saying the 0.7% commitment was “difficult to justify to the British people” after the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The March 2021 report was leaked to the International Development Committee on 28 February after the committee had repeatedly asked the department to publish it, and was published by the committee last week under parliamentary privilege.
The document warned that “there will likely be a significant reduction in the number and size of targeted programme activities aimed at reaching those furthest behind – including women, girls and people with disabilities”.
“Without targeted initiatives, development gains may not benefit the hardest to reach,” it added.
While the report said that initiatives focusing on gender equality would not be disproportionality dropped, it said that cuts to gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health programmes were likely to impact upon girls’ education and efforts to improve gender equality.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss refused to publish the report in January, saying its release would have a "chilling effect" on the openness of officials.
However, she told the House of Commons: “In the budget we are doing this year, we are restoring the aid budget for women and girls back to its previous levels and we are also restoring the humanitarian aid budget.”
In evidence to the committee in April, then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab had assured members that the assessment “showed no evidence that programmes targeting those with protected characteristics were more likely to be reduced than other programmes”.
Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, said the government had obstructed the committee’s “pursuit of scrutiny”.
Champion said that the committee was left with “no other choice” but to publish a leaked copy, calling the government’s behaviour “appalling”.
“From Erskine May to the ministerial code, the cabinet manual to the government’s own guidance in the Osmotherly Rules: all emphasise the importance for government to provide parliament with information to support scrutiny,” she added.
“Our committee was denied access to the equalities assessment seemingly for ministers to dodge the humiliation of admitting their own aid cuts undermined the government's key development objective: to support women and girls,” Champion said.
“We will not sweep this under the carpet. We will keep championing the rights of women and girls: for them to access education, sexual and reproductive health services, gender-based violence programmes, and other schemes that empower them.”
The committee said it been informed of severe cuts to programmes as a result of the revised aid budget, including:
- An 85% cut to the United Nations Population Fund, which the committee said would mean 250,000 more maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions
- Cuts to girls’ education programmes, estimated to result in 700,000 fewer girls receiving an education, including 360,000 girls in Bangladesh
- Cuts to the Speak! Out Project in Rwanda, which had been working to prevent violence against girls before its funding was cut in its final year. The cuts meant seven shelters for girls escaping violence at the hands of partners or family members faced closing down for good, meaning hundreds of girls who have been abused would miss out on counselling.
More than 40 international charities including Care International and Bond have written to Truss calling on her to outline her plans to restore the women and girls development budget, and requesting a plan for the government to return to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid by the end of the year.
The government has previously said the overseas aid budget cuts will be reversed when “when the fiscal situation allows”.