The UK plans to slash bilateral funding on water and sanitation projects in developing countries by more than 80% this year, despite handwashing and good hygiene being critical defences in the fight against coronavirus, a leaked government memo has revealed.
The total amount spent on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) – including multilateral programmes – is set to be reduced by 64% to about £100m as part of a massive cut in overseas aid, according to the briefing note which appears to have been prepared for a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office minister.
The three-page document – seen by Sky News – offers one of the clearest admissions yet of the real-world impact of a decision by Boris Johnson’s government to cut overseas aid by more than £4bn this financial year because of the economic impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s coffers.
The move has triggered an outcry from aid agencies and many of his own MPs amid concerns it will hurt the world’s poorest at a time when their need is greater than ever.
In a section, described as “background”, the memo, seemingly drawn up for the minister Wendy Morton, sets out “funding for WASH – general” for 2021-2022.
“We anticipate spending about £100m on WASH (to be confirmed), the majority of which will be channelled through our support to the World Bank and other multi-laterals,” it said. “This would represent a 64% cut in our overall support to the sector compared to 2019.”
As for bilateral water and sanitation programmes over the next 12 months, the memo said: “Our bilateral programme, which was already in steep decline following decisions to leave the sector by country programmes, is likely to end-up largely focused on a handful of countries including Ethiopia, Mozambique and Nepal.
“We do not yet have exact figures in terms of future spend, but we estimate that the reduction will amount to over 80% of our 2019 bilateral spend of £176m.”
In addition, a WASH programme implemented by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF will be closed this year, one year ahead of schedule.
The Foreign Office appears prepared for a backlash, given the funding cut is happening during a pandemic and ahead of a climate change summit, hosted by the UK, with water security a priority.
The briefing note said: “We expect criticism on the reduction in spend, particularly as the UK public views WASH as a priority area for UK aid, because hand hygiene is widely recognised as a critical intervention to counter the spread of covid-19, and because the cuts are being announced in the year that the UK is hosting COP26.”
Preet Kaur, Labour’s shadow international development secretary – a post that the Conservative government abolished last year after it merged the development department into the Foreign Office – warned of lethal consequences from shrinking funds to such a key area.
“Cutting the last line of defence against the spread of COVID-19 will cause untold deaths and risk further waves and mutations of the virus,” she told Sky News in a statement.
“The government must stop trying to avoid scrutiny and come clean by publishing all planned spending of UK aid in 21/22.”
Asked about the planned cuts, Tim Wainwright, chief executive of the charity WaterAid, was scathing.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“What is even more incredible is that these savage cuts to the funding of water and sanitation… should happen just months ahead of the G7 [group of industrialised nations] and COP26 climate summits at which the UK is wanting to demonstrate global leadership.”
The water and sanitation programme is just one of the casualties of a decision by the prime minister last year to shrink the UK’s aid spending target to 0.5% of national income from 0.7% in breach of a manifesto pledge and in the face of an outcry from aid agencies as well as many of his own MPs.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab faced angry questions from MPs last week about the impact of the cuts and because he has given so few details of exactly where they will fall.
Mr Wainwright said: “These cuts must be reversed at the earliest possible opportunity.”
The briefing note appears to be designed to help Ms Morton ahead of a meeting on Wednesday with the two co-chairs of an all-party parliamentary group on WASH to discuss UK funding of water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives globally.
The memo advises the minister that the co-chairs – Labour MP Fleur Anderson and Tory peer Lord Bates – “will be worried about the reduction in the UK’s spend on WASH at a time when COVID-19 cases are increasing and when we are preparing to host COP26”.
COP26 is the United Nations climate summit that the UK is hosting in November.
Under a subheading entitled “handling advice” Ms Morton is armed with various positive points, including how since 2015 the UK has helped over 62.6 million people gain access to safe water and sanitation.
She is also informed that UK support to a coalition which tackles the spread of COVID through changes in behaviour in some of the world’s poorest countries has not been impacted by the cuts.
The Foreign Office declined to comment on the content of leaked documents.
A spokesperson said that the UK was the third-largest aid donor in the world last year, spending £14.5bn, but the economic impact of the pandemic has forced a temporary reduction.
“We will still spend more than £10bn this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health,” the spokesperson said.
“We are working through what this means for individual programmes. Decisions will be announced in due course.”
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