“Callous and short sighted.” What do the aid cuts mean for global health and education?

The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab recently confirmed the Government’s plans to slash global health and education funding in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century.

In a statement released at the end of the day on 21 April, we learnt the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) planned spend for 2021-22 across ten thematic areas. The statement follows an announcement that the aid budget will be cut by roughly a third this year, from £14.5bn last year to just £10bn, of which the FCDO will spend £8bn. This reflects a clear departure from the promise to spend 0.7% of the UK’s national income (GNI) on aid each year, which was enshrined in law by the coalition Government in 2015.

Table showing the FCDO priority areas and budget - click link in caption for plan text
The FCDO’s aid budget for 2021-22 by thematic area. ODA = Official Development Assistance.
Source, including plain text: https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2021-04-21/hcws935 

The statement was scant on detail. It does not say, for example, the budget allocated to the many different aspects of health that the FCDO works on. It also gives no details about the budget allocated to different countries or multilateral organisations like, for example, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Most frustrating is the Government’s obfuscation of the data. Firstly, the thematic areas in the table do not have direct historical comparisons. Secondly, the data uses the financial year (April-April), whereas the FCDO has historically reported using the calendar year (Jan-Dec). Direct historical comparisons are therefore very difficult – but let’s have a go.

Global health and multilateral partnerships

The last year for which comprehensive data on global health is available is the 2019 calendar year. In 2019, the government spent £2.2bn on global health, which means the figures for 2021-22 resemble a 41% cut. That is above average when you consider that the aid budget as a whole is being cut by a third, or 33%.

The cut is even more severe when you consider the additional pressures on the health budget. In 2019, the entire budget was used for things like tackling polio and tuberculosis (TB) or improving nutrition. In 2020, the FCDO spent £1.39bn on COVID-19. As global case numbers continue to rise, it is likely that 2021 spend on COVID-19 will remain significant. The budget available for non-COVID-19 health interventions is therefore likely being squeezed even more than the data suggests. This is worrying, especially for research and development for global health, including infectious diseases like TB.

Much of the global health budget has already been pledged to multilateral organisations, including £330 million per year to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance over five years, and an average of £460 million per year to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria over three years. There’s nothing that indicates so far that these financial commitments are at risk, and we expect the Government to honour them – but it’s worth mentioning that the FCDO has always reserved the right to tweak the timing that each installment is made.

The remainder of the global health budget is likely to be squeezed though. One specific area where we know the Government has in fact turned its back on a commitment is in its pledge to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). In 2019, the UK pledged £100 million per year to GPEI for four years. This year, the FCDO will give just £5 million – a 95% cut. The UK’s cut to GPEI is doubly crippling because the FCDO is one of the few donors that gives unrestricted funding, which can be used flexibly and with maximum impact.

Funding for nutrition 

The impact of the cuts on nutrition remains unclear. Nutrition is funded by a combination of the health and humanitarian budgets (the latter is facing an identical cut to that of health – 41% compared to the 2019), as well as by FCDO country offices. We haven’t been told what the country office budgets are, but the health and humanitarian budgets threadbare and under intense strain, nutrition will likely be one of the worst hit areas, at a time when the world’s poorest countries are dealing with the effect of COVID-19 on malnutrition. Recent analysis from Save the Children estimates the UK Government could spend less than £26 million on vital nutrition services in 2021, down from £122 million in 2019; a cut of 80%. 

The Power of Nutrition, an NGO that the FCDO is a founding partner of, is set to have its budget slashed by 60% this year, impeding its ability to support mothers and children in countries with the highest burdens of malnutrition. These cuts cast doubt on the UK Government’s seriousness when it comes to making 2021 a ‘Year of Action on Nutrition’, and prevents it from playing its part in the success of the Nutrition for Growth Summit happening in Japan this December.

Global education

The UK Government has committed £400 million to girls’ education over the next year. Using preliminary data, this represents a 40% cut to the FCDO’s average education budget over the last four years (£672 million per year), and a large proportion of this money is actually likely to be channelled through programmes working on improving access to education for all children, not just girls. At the same time, a programme educating girls in Bangladesh who have been forced into domestic labour, is reporting that its funding will stop entirely. These cuts are being made in the same year that the UK co-hosts a major education summit where it will ask other governments to step up funding for the Global Partnership for Education.

What’s the impact?

truck carrying parcels labelled with 'UK aid' arrives at an an airport
UK aid arriving at Cepu airport in the Philippines. Image: Simon Davis, DFID, 2013

Put simply – less children living in poverty will go to school and receive basic health services. Analysis by Save the Children found that the cuts will prevent three million people from receiving lifesaving assistance.

In addition to the direct impacts, the uncertainty of the cuts is pushing essential services to breaking point. In Somalia, aid agencies are preparing to suspend health clinics serving as many as 2,000 women and children a month because they have no idea what funding they will receive or when.

The world is watching

The UK Government has made these cuts in the same year as it hosts the G7 and the UN Climate Change Conference (or COP26). In the same year that a global pandemic is causing poverty to rise for the first time in two decades. In the same year that many of its key allies – France, the US, Germany – are increasing their aid budgets.

The Government is not only isolating itself on the world stage. Many Conservative MPs have pledged to vote against the move away from 0.7% if given the chance. It seems ludicrous that the government would waste so much political capital on an unpopular decision to save just £4.3bn this year. To put the saving into perspective, if maintained for five years, it would reduce UK debt levels by less than 1%.

To cut aid in this way at any time would be callous and short-sighted. To do so in the middle of a global pandemic is nothing short of cruel. We will continue to fight this decision and we hope the government will think again.