LONDON — The British government faced mounting criticism Wednesday over its planned cuts to overseas aid spending as leaked details point to big reductions in funding for water, sanitation and hygiene projects as well as girls' education.
Details of where the ax will fall have yet to be officially confirmed but the government is adamant that its decision last November to reduce its long-standing target for overseas aid from 0.7% of national income to 0.5% was right given the scale of the economic recession in the U.K. during the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, or FCDO, which allocates the funding, said "tough but necessary decisions" have had to be made as a result of the pandemic's financial impact and that it is "working through what this means for individual programs."
In a leaked document reportedly prepared for minister Wendy Morton and published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, the government is said to be cutting bilateral funding for overseas water, sanitation and hygiene projects by over 80%
"There is never a good time to cut aid for lifesaving water and sanitation but the middle of the worst pandemic for 100 years must be one of the worst," said WaterAid U.K.'s Chief Executive Tim Wainwright.
He said it is "even more incredible" that the cuts are taking place in the year that the U.K. is hosting the Group of Seven and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, widely known as COP-26.
The latest leak comes a day after a former minister in the FCDO, Elizabeth Sugg, claimed that the government is to cut its aid budget for girls' education by more than 40% and that it is set to close its Women's Integrated Sexual Health program.
The U.K. has gained a strong reputation over the past couple of decades for being one of the most generous of all industrial nations when it comes to spending on projects in the developing world. Critics argue that the reductions will do undue harm to that reputation in addition to the detrimental impact on those who have benefited from its generosity.
"We are balancing the books on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world and it is a matter of national shame for our country to be slashing spending in this way," said Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative development secretary.
The FCDO defended its plan to cut the overall aid budget.
"The seismic impact of the pandemic on the U.K. economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid," a spokesman said. "We will still spend more than 10 billion pounds this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health."
The British economy has shrunk by around 10% and as a result Treasury chief Rishi Sunak decided to cut the allocation of government funds to overseas aid from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%. The decision to cut the target is expected to free up a further 4 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) for the Conservative government to use elsewhere, money that critics say could be used to save tens of thousands of lives in the poorest parts of the world.
The decision went against the government's promise in the 2019 general election to maintain the aid target and drew sharp criticism from across the political spectrum, including from within Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own Conservative Party.