UK criticised for two thirds drop in funding for water and hygiene drive in deprived areas

Aid watchdog condemns the move amid UK's championing of hand washing during Covid

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led initiatives on hand washing during the pandemic. Issue date: Monday January 24, 2022.
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Britain's aid watchdog has raised concerns over the UK's decision to cut funding by two thirds for its water and hygiene initiatives in deprived nations.

It comes as the UK has been at the forefront of championing the washing of hands to combat the spread of Covid-19.

In an assessment of the UK’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has raised concerns over the initiative's budget being cut from £206.5m to an estimated £70 million in 2021.

The ICAI says the "full effects of these reductions on programming are still emerging”.

This reduction in expenditure pre-dates the Covid-19 pandemic and has continued as a result of reductions in the UK aid budget in 2020 and 2021.

Despite the UK moving quickly to support a global drive on hand hygiene early in the Covid-19 pandemic, and continuing to view this as central in the response, overall, UK bilateral aid for WASH has continued to fall," ICAI Lead Commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton, who oversaw the report, said.

"It is not yet clear if the Foreign Commonwealth Development Office’s (FCDO) renewed focus on women and girls will lead to increased WASH programming.

“After a steep decline in UK bilateral aid for WASH since 2018, new programmes are in preparation, but the UK’s level of commitment to the sector remains to be seen."

The ICAI says the programmes are imperative for girls and women across the world, who are disproportionately impacted by inadequate WASH access.

"Given the UK government has committed to making women and girls central to its approach to international development, it is significant that the UK’s approach to WASH, announced in 2018, recognised the role that WASH can play in supporting gender equity, reducing violence against women and girls and improving health outcomes for women and children," it said.

The ICAI says the UK's target, under its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030 is falling far short from being met.

"So far, progress is lagging well behind these ambitions," the report says.

"Recent assessments suggest that the rate of progress needs to increase fourfold if the 2030 targets are to be met, and even more in fragile and conflict-affected states.

As well as the financing gap, the SDG is threatened by unsustainable water usage, pollution of water sources and the accelerating impacts of climate change, with more frequent and more severe droughts and flooding undermining sustainable WASH services."

Since 2011 the UK has provided more than 125m people with access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene promotion through its programmes.

It has developed programmes in a number of countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"The UK’s WASH research portfolio has been curtailed by the pandemic and UK aid budget reductions, and some research programmes have seen substantial budget reductions," the report says.

"Across the WASH portfolio, many programmes were affected: some faced budget reductions or delays, while others were brought to an early end. The pipeline of new programmes was also frozen.

"There were reductions and cancellations of grants to non-governmental organisations through central funds, as well as cutbacks to WASH-related research programmes. According to implementing partners consulted for this note, the challenge was not just the loss of funds, but the short notice.

"Some of the stakeholders we interviewed were concerned that the UK’s traditional strengths in the area may have been eroded."

In April 2020, the World Bank advised that investing in water, sanitation and hygiene was “one of the most cost-effective strategies for increasing pandemic preparedness, especially in resource constrained settings”.

"Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, hand hygiene was identified by global health experts as a first line of defence against the virus, and that the UK moved quickly to support a global drive on hand hygiene," it said.

"The UK also contributed to the formation of the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition, which succeeded in reaching 1.2 billion people with its Covid-19 and hygiene messaging in the first year."

During the evidence gathering for its report, the ICAI was told by FCDO that new WASH programmes are in preparation under its current three-year spending review.

However, the ICAI said the UK now needs to further scrutinise a number of areas surrounding the programme, including the "adequacy" of its investment and whether WASH objectives integrated into other programmes will be given priority.

In 2020, the UK government announced it would cut spending on foreign aid from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent because of pressure caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the National Audit Office, in its review of the decision, said the move “disproportionately affected” bilateral programmes.

Updated: April 06, 2022, 11:01 PM