Foreign aid cuts 'to leave vulnerable women without critical services'

Internal briefing highlighted the consequences of aid cuts to women’s health and well-being

Burqa-clad Afghan women climb a stony path in Kabul. AFP
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Foreign Office ministers have been warned that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women and girls around the world will be left without critical services after UK aid cuts in 2023-2024.

The budget for Official Development Assistance is due to rise marginally in 2023-2024, then by 12 per cent in 2024-2025 to £8.3 billion ($10.6 billion), a programme of allocations published by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office showed last month.

Despite the projections indicating an increase, ODA spending is yet to return to pre-2020 levels, which is when the government decided to temporarily reduce it from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent.

An equality impact assessment conducted by the FCDO was provided to ministers this year to inform their decisions on where significant cuts to the budget for 2023-2024 would fall.

The assessment, published by the International Development Committee, made several examples showing possible effects on groups with protected characteristics due to reductions in spending on programmes specifically for vulnerable and marginalised groups.

In particular, it highlighted the consequences for women’s health and well-being, leading to maternal deaths.

“Due to the scale of the ODA reductions (76 per cent) in Afghanistan, the FCDO will not be able to support critical services for women and girls," the assessment said.

“Since returning to power, the Taliban has imposed restrictions on women and girls, preventing them from enjoying their human rights and systematically erasing them from public spaces.

“Therefore, reducing funding will potentially leave some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world without critical services.”

Afghan women living under Taliban rule - in pictures

On sexual and reproductive health rights, it said on Pan Africa: “Spend reductions on the Women’s Integrated Sexual Health Programme will mean that the programme’s results for women and girls would be reduced by approximately 60 per cent.

“The number of couple years of protection provided will drop from nearly 3 million to around 1.1 million; the number of unsafe abortions averted from nearly 300,000 to approximately 115,000; number of maternal deaths averted will drop from 2,531 to just over 1,000.”

On Yemen, it said: “Half a million women and children in Yemen will not receive health care and fewer preventable deaths will be avoided.

"It may cause lasting damage to health systems in Yemen, if other donors are unable to fund.”

According to the assessment, girls’ education in Ethiopia will also be compromised and violence against women and girls in South Sudan and Somalia will not receive adequate attention and response.

Cuts to disability, religion, and LGBTQ+ inclusion efforts in various countries will affect vulnerable groups, limiting access to improved learning environments, healthcare and support services.

In a letter sent in July alongside the full equality impact assessment to the Labour chairwoman of the IDC, Sarah Champion, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell said the report had been “a key component of allocation decision-making”.

Mr Mitchell also included a paper showing the adjustments that were made in response to equality considerations and to “ensure support reached the most vulnerable”.

The paper said the “limited funds meant not all equality impacts could be mitigated but, using in-year underspends and other resources identified by officials, FCDO ministers made adjustments which included the following 2023-2024 funding uplifts targeted at helping the most vulnerable and those with a relevant protected characteristic”.

They included an increase to Afghanistan’s allocation by £41 million, to £100 million to allow the continuation of humanitarian and women's and girls’ programmes, and an increase to Yemen’s allocation by £32 million, to £87 million, for the humanitarian response.

There was also an increase to Syria’s allocation by £30 million to £77 million, and to Somalia’s allocation by £30 million, to £90 million.

There was also £12 million to central humanitarian and health programmes focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and £21 million to NGOs supporting the most vulnerable.

“By the FCDO’s own assessment, critical support to tackle malnutrition will not be delivered," Ms Champion said.

"Programmes aimed at reaching those furthest behind – including women, girls and people with disabilities – will be cut.

“There will be a further political hit to the UK’s leadership on global and regional programmes.

“These must have been intolerable decisions for officials to make, and it is hard to see how the terrible impact set out here sits with FCDO’s recently restated commitment to ‘persuade more of our fellow citizens that international development is core to our own national interest as well as the right thing to do’.

“It is crucial that promised uplifts in the planned allocations for 2024/2025 go to the people with protected characteristics who, by FCDO’s own assessment, have borne the brunt of these cuts.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “UK aid spending is due to increase to £8.3 billion next year, and will be focused on programmes addressing humanitarian crises, protecting women and girls and supporting the world’s most vulnerable, while delivering value for money for taxpayers.

“While the budget for low-income countries has had to be reduced in the short term to achieve our savings target, it is due to nearly double for these countries the year after, including in Africa where aid will rise from £646 million to £1.364billion.”

Updated: August 01, 2023, 11:01 PM