In northern Mozambique, British government aid has helped the International Planned Parenthood Federation save the lives of pregnant women who are among the thousands of people displaced by the conflict triggered by an Islamist uprising.

In the province of Cabo Delgado, aid workers have helped refugees “suffering and dying because they don’t have access to basic drugs”, and children born far from health facilities, explained Arune Estavela, an IPPF representative in the southern African country.

But this work and other projects in family planning and sexual health may be abruptly shut down within months as the UK-based IPPF faces a $100m cut in funding.

It is one of the many NGOs working across Africa braced for severe financial pain, following the decision by the UK government in November to cut spending on foreign aid from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP, a move that has saved the UK Treasury about £4bn.

Mozambique map

In the first official breakdown of spending allocations published last month, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab outlined the government’s desire to provide “value for taxpayers”, while supporting seven key areas including girls’ education, which will receive £400m, and global health security, which will receive £1.3bn.

However, as additional details of the cuts have emerged, the government has come under growing criticism from NGOs and senior backbenchers over the long term implication of the cuts, particularly within Africa.

The UK has historically been a large provider of aid in the continent. In 2020, Africa received £2.22bn, the largest amount of region-specific bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) handed out by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that year. In 2019 five of the top 10 recipients of country specific aid from the UK were African: Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Congo and Somalia.

The UK’s Foreign Office is yet to provide a full country by country breakdown of aid spending for the financial year 2021/22.

However, Raab confirmed last month the government’s intention to prioritise the region. Fifty per cent of the UK’s country bilateral ODA will be spent in Africa, amounting to £764m in the year ahead, he told a House of Lords committee.

Despite this, leading organisations working on the continent have reported significant cuts. For example, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) will receive just £2.5m in aid from the UK government in 2021, compared with £15m in 2020. Unicef also said its funding would be cut by 60 per cent.

The overall reaction within the sector has been one of “shell shock and increasing outrage”, said Abby Baldoumas, a policy and advocacy manager for Bond, an organisation working with more than 400 international development NGOs.

Baldoumas argued that the UK government has provided an “incomplete picture of cuts”, forcing charities to “piece together information” and scale back or suspend long term development projects.

The cuts have also dismayed London-based British officials who have seen the big reduction in spending coincide with the 2020 merger of the old Department for International Development with the Foreign Office.

“The atmosphere is pretty bad,” admitted one senior official at the merged Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. “The department is pretty dysfunctional at the moment. There are a lot of unhappy people around, having to oversee these cuts.”

Another NGO set to be affected is Children in Crossfire. The organisation, which provides educational support for children in Ethiopia and Tanzania, was recently given 90 days’ notice that the UK government would no longer support its pre-school programme in the Dodoma region of Tanzania.

Executive director Richard Moore argued that the short notice given by the government had left organisations such as his scrambling. “It has allowed none of us the opportunity or the time to address the issues that will come about as a result of pulling the plug.”

Some British officials working within the continent argue that, while overall aid spending in Africa is likely to take a “decent hit”, some parts of the continent will probably be spared the full brunt of the cuts, such as east Africa, seen as a priority region by Raab.The FCDO spending in Africa will include “support to get girls into school, fight the causes and consequences of climate change and support economic development to build trading partners of the future”, the department said.

Yet charities warned that, even if some countries are partly shielded, the cuts come precisely at the moment the pandemic has placed a greater strain on lower-income countries throughout the continent.

Amref Health Africa, a Nairobi-based organisation that works in 35 countries in Africa, said the UK government has confirmed cuts to two of its programmes in South Sudan, which focused on supporting healthcare systems, improving sanitation and addressing neglected tropical diseases.

Morrish Ojok, the organisation’s programme director in South Sudan, argued that the cuts could slow down the country’s fight against coronavirus, particularly as “around 90 per cent of the country’s healthcare systems”, were reliant on overseas funding.

Meanwhile in the UK, some senior Conservative backbenchers, including former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, have strongly criticised the government, arguing that richer nations such as the UK have a “moral duty” to help the world’s poorest.

“Why is Britain as the chair of the G7 cutting its aid contribution when all other countries are maintaining or increasing their commitment,” he said. “The damage to our international reputation is immense.”

This rings true for those on the ground. “There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that these cuts to UK aid are going to cost lives . . . Cabo Delgado is an example of that,” said Alvaro Bermejo, IPPF’s director-general.

Letter in response to this article:

Measured in pints, the cut in foreign aid is shameful / From Keith Billinghurst, London SE9, UK