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New report shows UK aid affected by budget reductions and lack of strategic framework

Published on 18 January 2023

The UK’s democracy and human rights work has delivered useful results, often in difficult political contexts, but has been significantly affected by budget reductions and the lack of a strategic framework, a new review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

The aid watchdog’s latest review assesses the effectiveness of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) work countering threats to democracy and human rights – which totalled £1.37 billion in aid spent to support democratic participation, political institutions, media freedom and human rights organisations between 2015 and 2021.

ICAI finds that the UK’s work helped improve the effectiveness and inclusiveness of elections, political parties and parliaments in several countries, especially when they responded to local challenges. Yet according to the report, the UK’s democracy and human rights related work has been significantly affected by aid budget reductions – which saw expenditure in this area reduced by 33% in 2020 – and the rapid turnover of UK government ministers has resulted in the lack of a clear strategy.

ICAI warns that, from 2020 onwards, the UK no longer has the ability to respond to new challenges and deliver on the UK government’s high policy ambitions in this area. It further warns that, following another change in foreign secretary in September 2022 and discussions of a revision of the Integrated Review – the UK’s national security and international policy – there is more uncertainty ahead.

Commenting on the report, Professor John Gaventa, Director, Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme, said:

“Our research shows that around the world closing civic space and attacks on human rights pose fundamental threats to democracy. It is quite worrying therefore that the ICAI report published today gives the UK a red/amber (‘unsatisfactory’) mark in developing a coherent response to these issues.

Despite the UK Government’s public commitments to an ‘open societies’ strategy, this has yet to be implemented, and no guidance has been provided to FCDO staff or partners for how to protect civic space, deepen democracy or protect women’s rights.   

It is no wonder then that this ICAI report correctly warns that the ‘UK government’s reputation as a thought leader and reliable global actor on democracy and human rights has declined in recent years.”

Read ICAI’s report ‘The UK’s approach to democracy and human rights’ here.

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