The British government forced through £4.2bn in aid cuts so quickly it had little time to plan the impact they would have, or consult partners, according to an official audit.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said bilateral spending – aid given directly to another government – faced some of the harshest cuts by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) – 53% compared with less than a third of the overall aid budget – because of political and legal commitments to multilateral spending.
Funding was slashed by 69% to Syria, 62% in Bangladesh and 49% in South Sudan as the FCDO sought to reduce the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income. Support for Palestinian refugees in Syria was discontinued, despite warnings about the impact on health and education, and funding to the UN population fund was cut.
The audit, published on Thursday, said 15 FCDO country and regional offices had their funding cut by more than 50% compared with the previous year.
These offices were left to make their own decisions about what to cut, according to criteria such as performance, but, because of previous cuts, even well-performing programmes faced spending reductions.
Ministers told offices not to discuss the cuts with their local partners, which the audit said meant staff could not get advice from them.
The audit said because the decision to cut aid was made only a month before it was announced in the spending review in November 2020; the FCDO was forced to quickly make immediate changes to programmes that had been planned to run for several years.
This meant the FCDO could not carry out a thorough review of the impact the cuts would have, or whether the changes in spending would be good value for money, it concluded.
The audit pointed out that 11% of the overall aid budget was diverted to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The speed and depth of reductions has had an immediate impact locally and the effect on long-term value for money is not yet known. FCDO must build its understanding of how the spending reductions have affected development outcomes to help it plan its approach to future budget allocations, including a planned return to the 0.7% ODA [official development assistance] target.”
Bond, a network of UK NGOs, said the audit confirmed its concerns.
Abigael Baldoumas, its policy and advocacy manager, said: “We now know just how opaque the process was, how rushed and outsized the cuts to bilateral programmes were, and have more detail about where the cuts fell.”
She added the government had to learn from its mistakes.