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How UK aid cuts are impacting International Geneva

A displaced Yemeni family queue to receive food aid, June 2021. UN humanitarian appeals for the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis” have fallen far short of targets this year despite escalating famine and conflict, with the UK cutting its funding by two-thirds. (EPA / Yahya Arhab)

The UK government’s decision to cut its humanitarian aid budget by 30 per cent in response to the economic impact of the pandemic has been sending shockwaves through the NGO community ever since it was announced in late 2020.

These cuts, which amount to around £4.5 billion (CHF 5.7bn), see the UK’s annual aid budget shrink from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of national income – a figure that may seem insignificant, but which international NGOs warn will have a devastating impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations at a time when needs are spiralling.

Details of which organisations will be hit the hardest by the cuts have gradually emerged since the announcement, prompting concern among humanitarian organisations here in Geneva that some of their most vital projects could be in jeopardy.

Although the cuts are unlikely to impact their Geneva-based budgets, many are now facing difficult decisions over how to cope with major funding shortfalls for their operations in the field.

Who’s being impacted? Many UN organisations and programmes with headquarters in Geneva such as UNAIDS, Unitaid, UNICEF and UNCTAD have confirmed they will be impacted by the cuts, which would imperil projects fighting disease and supporting women and children in crisis around the world.

International NGOs with advocacy offices in Geneva, such as Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, are also facing drastic funding shortfalls for their operations in countries like Syria and Yemen, where the combination of conflict, rising poverty and famine are pushing millions into emergency.

“The consequences of the cuts are difficult to forecast, but the scale of the withdrawal means that loss of life is inevitable,” Rachael Sweet, a representative for Save the Children UK, told Geneva Solutions. “Our analysis shows that the UK Government will provide three million fewer people with humanitarian assistance this year than it did in 2019.”

“Children living in some of the world's more dangerous places are bearing the brunt of the UK's cuts to aid,” she added. “The cuts to UK aid have seen key areas of relevance to children like education, humanitarian assistance and water and sanitation reduced by 36 per cent, 45 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.”

Like many NGOs with offices in Geneva, Save the Children are still working out how the cuts will impact their programmes. So far, the organisation has confirmed that at least four of their UK government-funded programmes have or will have budgets cut.

“We’re worried about the potential impacts if we must shorten programme duration or downsize the geographic coverage and withdraw programmes from communities at short notice,” said Sweet. “The prolonged uncertainty is severely impacting our ability to plan for how we will continue to support the children and families we work with”.

Yemen and Syria. The UK government also confirmed that its support for Yemen and Syria will be cut by two-thirds and a third respectively compared to last year. The UN emphasised that Yemen would face the worst famine in living memory if donors did not ramp up their pledges during a donor conference in March, but donations fell far short. The UK pledged little over half of what it promised in 2020.

Save the Children has said that the cuts could mean closing 13 health facilities and protection services that help around 15,000 children in the country, where the UN has said 80 per cent of the population is in need of aid.

NGOs with operations in Syria have also warned the government that the proposed cut will put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) funding for its Syria programmes has been reduced by 75 per cent from 2020, forcing them to shut programmes across the north of the country.

They estimate the cuts will leave almost 97,500 Syrians without lifesaving services, including protection support for women and girls, primary healthcare services and economic recovery programmes, while the country is wracked by escalating violence, rising food insecurity and economic crisis.

“The UK’s decision to enact cuts to Syria aid a decade into the conflict is deeply concerning,” Su'ad Jarbawi, MENA regional vice president at the IRC, said in a statement. “The fact that frontline NGOs, including the IRC, are being forced to close down lifesaving programmes now, during a time of greatest need, should be a real cause for concern.”

Global health and disease. NGOs whose work focuses on fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Polio and Malaria such as UNAIDS and Unitaid are facing some of the most dramatic cuts. UNAIDS has confirmed that its funding from the UK will be cut from £15m to £2.5m under the proposed plans, which would have a catastrophic impact on the populations they serve, particularly across Africa where the pandemic continues to rage and vaccination rates remain extremely low.

“We are still looking at what impact it's going to have on us and crunching our numbers,” Rosemary Museminali, director of external and donor relations at UNAIDS, told Geneva Solutions. “But we hope that we won’t get to a point where we will have to take drastic measures or reduce our services because this could have negative effects on the people we serve.”

A representative from Unitaid told Geneva Solutions that the shortfall could set back vital progress in combating HIV, Malaria and TB, compounding the impact of the pandemic. “It’s important to acknowledge that the pandemic threatens much of the process that’s been made against the three diseases,” said Hervé Verhoosel, spokesperson for Unitaid. “Therefore, funding from key donors like the UK for Unitaid’s core work has never been more vital.”

UN agencies that focus on children’s access to education, protection and health services, and women’s rights, are also facing significant cuts.

UNICEF has confirmed their core funding from the UK will be cut by approximately 60 per cent, and the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) has said its projects will be cut by 85 per cent, estimating that the cut funding would have helped prevent 25,000 maternal and child deaths and 4.6 million unsafe abortions.

“When funding stops, women and girls suffer, especially the poor, those living in remote, underserved communities, and through humanitarian crises,” UNFPA’s executive director, Dr Natalia Kanem, said in a statement.

Elsewhere within the community of UN organisations here in Geneva, a representative from UNCTAD confirmed to Geneva Solutions that it is also facing cuts to its Trade Facilitation Programme, which helps developing countries overcome bureaucratic obstacles to trade.

Although UNCTAD is still negotiating the cuts with the UK, they could be facing a major shortfall which will impact their work in countries across Africa as well as the Carribean and Asia-Pacific regions. “That means, of course, that there are some activities that we have been planning for this year that we will not be able to carry out,” said Poul Hansen, head of the programme. “But what we are discussing with the UK right now is to focus this year’s [funding] on activities we had already started last year.”

A nosedive in humanitarian aid. The UK is one of a handful of major donors to cut aid budgets in the past year, offsetting increased spending by the majority of leading donors, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report released last month.

The report highlighted that international humanitarian spending by public donors dropped by a whopping $284m (CHF 262m) between 2019 and 2020 even as the number of people in need reached a record-high.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with spiralling conflict, political instability and extreme weather in many regions, drove the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance up to over 243 million in 75 countries – a rise of 19 million, with 10 more countries sliding into crisis. However, international humanitarian assistance fell for the second consecutive year.

“Germany and the US increased funding by 27 per cent and six per cent respectively,” said the report, “but the UK government cut total humanitarian funding by almost a third (31 per cent), causing international humanitarian finance from governments to drop for the second year running.”

On top of this, while the majority of donor countries increased their humanitarian spending in 2020, the leading 20 donors made dramatic cuts totalling $4.5bn in non-Covid related humanitarian funding, diverting resources away from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations who are simultaneously at the highest risk of the pandemic’s impact.

UN-coordinated appeals increased dramatically in 2020 to meet the growing need, up by 27 per cent to reach a record $38.8bn. The number of appeals also more than doubled, with 17 new appeals solely in response to the pandemic. However, they were only 52 per cent funded overall, resulting in the largest funding shortfall the organisation has ever seen at $18.8bn. Covid-related appeals were even worse affected, receiving just 40 per cent of the funding required.

The cuts by the UK and other major donors such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia offset the gains made elsewhere, with the overall cut in public humanitarian aid in 2020 measured at 1.2 per cent ($284m), from $24.5bn in 2019 to $24.2bn in 2020.

An uncertain future. The UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has pledged that the cuts will be temporary in response to the pandemic and stressed that they remain a major humanitarian donor.

“The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid,” said a government spokesperson. “We will still spend more than £10 billion this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health.”

Many organisations told Geneva Solutions that they are still working with the UK government to work out how the cuts will affect their programmes, and that they hope normal funding will resume as promised. They are also appealing to other donors to maintain or increase their funding to bridge the gap. However, for hundreds of NGOs fighting disease, poverty and providing lifesaving services for vulnerable populations, even a temporary shortfall will have catastrophic consequences.

“Even if you reduce the funding today and restore it tomorrow, there is an impact that is irreversible,” said UNAIDS’ Museminali. “For example, a woman whose preventative services are cut today will go from a healthy person to an infected person. Granted, there may be treatment tomorrow, but that won’t bring this young woman back to being non-infected. They will be infected, probably on treatment for the rest of their lives. A child whose food has not been provided today will fall into the malnourished category, and we know what that does to an adult later in their life. So for us, the sustainability of funding is as important as the availability of funding.”

“Our hope is to see the UK restore funding to UNAIDS and other organisations, because if we have learned anything during this Covid pandemic it’s that one part of the world is not completely safe if another part is not safe.”

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