New figures released by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) show funding for human rights work and the promotion of democracy is to be reduced by over 50% from £52.4m to only £27.9m.
This cut in funding by over a half seems to undermine the UK government’s current positioning as a “force for good in the world”. A large bulk of the cuts come at the expense of the FCDO’s international programme, including the conflict, security and stability fund.
An accompanying FCDO document stated:
“This reduced allocation is reflective of the decision taken by [FCDO] to pause programming at start of 2020 to 2021, in order to respond to Covid-19 including reprioritising ODA budgets in summer 2020.”
However, it did note the overseas development assistance [ODA] allocation for 2021 to 2021, which focuses on the promotion of human rights, democracy, and the rules-based international system programme would still be in excess of £8.5 million.
Over the past financial year, spending on this particular portion of the budget was close to £20m.
The accompanying document to the FCDO cuts stated:
“Human rights are more than just principles enshrined in international law. They are the bedrock of successful and progressive societies. Countries where human rights are respected, including those with a strong record on gender equality, tend to be more prosperous, democratic, and stable. Corruption is less likely to take root, and extremism is less likely to find fertile ground. That is why safeguarding, promoting, and defending human rights is a key and integral part of our work.”
Despite this, further cuts were also announced to the budget for human rights promotion and the open government programme. However, it is not certain that these cuts will be made in the coming financial year.
Mooted plans to impose widespread cuts across the department, which saw the Foreign Office merged with the Department for International Development last year, have received cross-party criticism within parliament, as well as humanitarian and development organisations.
Polly Truscott, foreign affairs adviser to Amnesty International, said:
“These reductions come at a time when rights holders need more international support than ever, with many leaders exploiting the global pandemic to launch fresh attacks on human rights and activists…This sorry announcement gives lie to the government’s ‘renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world’.”
Irregardless of the cuts, the UK will remain one of the larger aid budgets in the world and spends more on aid in relation to gross national income than most other G7 countries. However, the lack of an accompanying press release to these cuts has left many questioning why the government is not being transparent about where £5bn worth of cuts will be falling.
A spokesperson for the FCDO said:
“The outbreak of the pandemic last year forced us to take difficult decisions. This included temporarily pausing funding for this programme for six months from March 2020 to prioritise support for the global coronavirus response. It resumed last September. This six-month pause is the reason the funding for 2020 to 2021 was £8.5m, half that of the previous year…Promoting human rights and defending democracy is a crucial part of our work as a force for good in the world.”
The government is bound in international law to dedicate 0.7% of gross national income to foreign aid. However, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced last year that aid would be “temporarily” cut to 0.5% to respond to the economic toll of the coronavirus.
The move was widely condemned across the House of Commons. A cross party letter from MPs, from a total of seven separate parties, wrote to the government asking it to reverse the cut to the aid budget.
IOHR Director, Valerie Peay described the move as “ a lost opportunity for the UK to use its legacy of giving aid, without saddling the most in need with crippling debt, to incentivise other countries to follow suit. After coronavirus that need is greater than ever and the UK should be leading, not slipping backwards.”
In March 2021, the Government announced it would be cutting aid to Yemen by more than half – widely considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Speaking at the time, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP said:
“It’s difficult to overstate the level of need in what was the poorest country in the Middle East even before the devastating conflict started there in 2015. 80% of the population relies on humanitarian support, half of all medical facilities have been destroyed and a child dies every ten minutes from diarrhoea, malnutrition or other preventable causes…This cut to aid in Yemen is the first of many that will be caused by the breaking of our promise to spend 0.7% of national income on aid.”