Why is the UK government turning off the tap during a global pandemic?

Published on 21 July 2021

Tanvi Bhatkal

Postdoctoral Researcher

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

The UK government’s decision to reduce its Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5% – a cut of around £4 billion this year – was confirmed last week by a majority of 35 votes in a House of Commons vote.

The cuts that came into effect from April this year have been especially devastating for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), a sector where the UK has been very prominent globally. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK helped 62.5 million people gain access to safe water and sanitation between 2015 and 2020,

A leaked memo of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) highlighted that cuts this year alone to bilateral aid for WASH could be as high as 80% – from £150 million in 2019 to £30 million in 2021. This sudden reduction will both undermine past progress, plunge millions into water insecurity and lead to unnecessary illness and death, especially of children.

Impacts of clean water and sanitation

Providing clean drinking water and sanitation is considered one of the most cost-effective ways of improving health and productivity across the global South. Inadequate access to WASH is responsible for 10% of the global disease burden, contributing to 1.6 million preventable deaths annually. Having piped water frees up time for households, increasing opportunities for income generation, education, childcare and building social capital – especially for girls and women.

According to WaterAid, achieving universal basic water services would free up 77 million working days for women annually. Safe sanitation could prevent 6 billion cases of diarrhoea and 12 billion cases of helminths between 2021-2040, improving child health and nutrition.

For decades, OECD countries including the UK have been committed to improving access to drinking water and sanitation and, in 2010, the UN General Assembly officially recognized the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Despite this, 2 billion people globally lack access to safe water, and 3.6 billion – nearly half of humanity – lack access to safe sanitation. In fact, the WHO and UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Programme recently announced that achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of universal coverage by 2030 will require quadrupling current rates of progress.

The wrong time to renege on global commitments

It is never a good time to renege on global commitments and cut support for water and sanitation services – but the timing couldn’t be worse than during a pandemic. While there have been concerns about the effectiveness of aid, this calls for reforming development efforts as contributions towards global public goods, rather than curtailing aid. The leaked FCDO memo recognises WASH as a priority area of UK Aid for the British public, especially in the time of Covid-19 and with the UK hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP-26). Yet, this is when the UK government decided to turn off the tap.

The cuts have wide-ranging implications: apart from harming communities across the global South, they also risk damage to the UK’s reputation at the time of Brexit. While the UK is cutting aid, 16 of the OECD’s DAC member countries increased ODA since 2019. And, although the UK government claims its cuts are temporary, the damage is already done when jobs are lost, or people are dying.

The cuts have been so significant that a group of philanthropists and foundations have highlighted the devastating consequences of terminating support for ongoing efforts and stepped in with emergency funding of £93.5 million to protect critical projects providing health services for the world’s poorest.

Negative impacts on science and research

The cuts also negatively impact science and research at a time when the FCDO has emphasised ‘Global Britain’ as a leader in science and research. If ongoing research is stalled before completion, this does not represent value for money. ODA cuts to the Global Challenges Research Fund, for instance, risk long term damage to the UK’s reputation for research and partnership. Cuts of up to 70% have affected research communities, especially in low-income countries, breaking trust of international partners. Notably, ODA cuts were enacted with little time for recipients to prepare, and with little transparency and accountability.

One example of a UK ODA-funded research project is Towards Brown Gold, which studies the sanitation challenge in off-grid small towns across Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal – and examines how shit can be reimagined as a resource or “brown gold”.

This year the project is receiving one third of its original budget, with uncertainty of future budget restoration. This cut has been devastating to our partners, who have unstintingly worked to formulate collaborative plans and employ staff during the severe second wave of Covid-19 in South Asia and civil war in Ethiopia. These cuts have upset ongoing work and developing partnerships with local governments and communities to contribute to improved sanitation for the most marginalised groups. Similar cuts have occurred across hundreds of projects on water, sanitation, public health, and even critical Covid-19 research.

Spending priorities

The government argues that the cut of £4 billion in ODA is needed as the UK’s public finances have struggled during the pandemic. Yet, while curtailing ODA , the government spent £37 billion on Test and Trace – which was considerably more expensive than similar programmes in other countries and yet failed to deliver on its basic promise. The government has also increased defense spending by £16 billion, a quarter of which could have protected its ODA commitments. This makes it clear that the cuts are not financial, but rather ideological. While the pandemic has highlighted the need for mutual solidarity, the cuts undermine the idea of working together to enhance global public goods.

The significant cut to UK aid is undoubtedly having devastating effects, with prolonged uncertainty for lifesaving programmes, humanitarian efforts and crucial development progress. With concerns that the strict economic criteria needed for a return to 0.7% risks making the ODA cuts permanent, it remains imperative for the development community and for citizens to continue to urge the government to prioritise funding for essential WASH services across the global South.

The cut to UK aid is a political choice, not an economic necessity: in the midst of a pandemic the cuts to the UK’s ODA budget negatively affect the world’s poorest, the UK’s reputation, and the effectiveness of research institutions in the UK and partners across the world.

No one is safe until we are all safe. How can the UK afford to renege on its global responsibility at such a time?

This is a longer version of an opinion article that was originally published by Inter Press Service News Agency

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