ICAI review finds the UK’s initial aid response to COVID-19 was strong, but later undermined by reductions to aid budget

21 Oct 2021

The UK’s initial aid-funded response to the COVID-19 pandemic was strong, but more recently support has been undermined by the reduction of the UK’s aid budget to 0.5% of UK gross national income (GNI), a new review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

ICAI’s review, published today (Thursday 21st October), assesses how well the UK government prioritised and redirected its official development assistance (ODA) during the first 16 months of the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and makes three recommendations to the government.

The review praises the government’s early aid response which included contributions to global vaccine development, but warns that the reduction of UK aid – an estimated cut of £3.5 billion in 2021 – has undermined programmes intended to mitigate the long-term effects of COVID-19 abroad.

It highlights that the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 vaccines have gone to developed countries so far, noting that as of October 2021 less than 2% of the populations in Sudan and Zambia have been vaccinated, and calls on the government to do more to support equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries.

ICAI commissioner, Sir Hugh Bayley, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reversed development gains made in many of the world’s poorest countries, pushing an additional 97 million people into extreme poverty.

“The UK’s early aid response was strong and made an important contribution to global efforts to develop vaccines. It is important that the government now builds on this to accelerate the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries and to ensure they are used to protect the most vulnerable people.”

The aid watchdog commended the flexibility and adaptability shown by UK aid officials during the early stages of the COVID-19 response. It notes that officials adapted, or “pivoted”, existing aid programmes to respond to both the immediate and long-term impacts of the pandemic. ICAI also highlighted the rapid allocation of £733 million of UK aid by mid-April 2020, which made the UK one of the largest donors during the early phase of the international response.

While there was no strategy in place for responding to a global pandemic, ICAI said the UK’s response benefited from experience gained during previous health crises, such as Ebola and SARS. ICAI also found that the government had made good use of the extensive research capacity in UK-supported institutions and established international networks.

ICAI recognised that the UK had contributed significantly to an unprecedented level of international cooperation to tackle the pandemic, through its early contributions to humanitarian appeals and funding for COVAX – a facility established to promote equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines.

However, ICAI reported that the scale of the budget cuts required to meet the reduction of the aid spending target from 0.7% to 0.5% of UK GNI meant that many areas of aid-spending linked to the pandemic response were affected. ICAI said decisions on which areas would be cut did not always reflect the substantial volume of evidence and analysis on pandemic-related risks and vulnerabilities that had been collected.

The aid watchdog found programmes that would have mitigated the long-term damage of the pandemic which have been reduced or closed, as well as long-term investments delivering good value for money which have been ended. The report highlighted a decrease in funding for ‘social safety nets’ for refugee families in Jordan as an example that went against the available guidance. In some cases, ICAI said this increased the burden on partner countries and other funders, potentially placing vulnerable groups at increased risk.

ICAI noted that plans for the distribution of vaccines have been disrupted by production and distribution challenges, and warned that urgent action is required to ensure the COVAX facility is able to deliver vaccines at the scale needed to developing countries. ICAI also noted that it is not yet fully clear how much of the UK’s contributions towards coronavirus vaccines will qualify as ODA.

The report also found that the mandatory return of UK aid staff from many international postings – referred to as a ‘drawdown’ – hampered the UK aid response and resulted in the UK being out of step with some other donors and implementing partners. ICAI said it was notable that some specialist advisers tasked with overseeing the UK’s health programmes were drawn down when their knowledge and experience was needed most.

ICAI recommended that the government do more to accelerate the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries and support their equitable rollout to vulnerable populations. The report also recommended that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should delegate as much operational decision-making as possible to specialist staff delivering programmes, and that it should review and adapt its ‘drawdown’ strategy for the mandatory return of country-based staff during future crises to better reflect individual country contexts and staff circumstances.


Read the review


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