UK aid funded programmes have tackled threats to democracy and human rights in developing countries, but future results are in doubt

18 Jan 2023

The UK’s democracy and human rights work has delivered useful results, often in difficult political contexts, but has been significantly affected by budget reductions and the lack of a strategic framework, a new review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

The aid watchdog’s latest review assesses the effectiveness of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) work countering threats to democracy and human rights – which totalled £1.37 billion in aid spent to support democratic participation, political institutions, media freedom and human rights organisations between 2015 and 2021.

ICAI finds that the UK’s work helped improve the effectiveness and inclusiveness of elections, political parties and parliaments in several countries, especially when they responded to local challenges. ICAI praised the UK for its focus on inclusion, which helped improve the realisation of rights for a range of at-risk groups, such as women, young people, people with a disability, and, to a lesser extent, ethnic or religious minorities and LGBT+ people. It also highlights that combining aid programming with diplomatic interventions often proved to be particularly effective, although the merged FCDO has not yet met its potential in this area.

According to the report, the UK’s democracy and human rights related work has been significantly affected by aid budget reductions – which saw expenditure in this area reduced by 33% in 2020 – and the rapid turnover of UK government ministers has resulted in the lack of a clear strategy. ICAI warns that, from 2020 onwards, the UK no longer has the ability to respond to new challenges and deliver on the UK government’s high policy ambitions in this area. It further warns that, following another change in foreign secretary in September 2022 and discussions of a revision of the Integrated Review – the UK’s national security and international policy – there is more uncertainty ahead.

ICAI awarded a ‘green-amber’ score overall – meaning an area where UK aid is making a positive contribution, but could do more, especially as future results are in doubt. It made five recommendations.

Commenting on the findings of the review, ICAI Commissioner, Tamsyn Barton, said:

“Promoting democracy and human rights around the world is an important objective for UK aid, particularly considering the widespread reversal of democratic trends in recent years.

“We found that the UK’s work has produced useful results, including helping at-risk groups such as women and people with disabilities to advocate for their rights, combat discrimination, participate in politics and access basic services, as well as helping to create more effective political and civil society organisations.

“However, since 2020, the UK has been less responsive to emerging democracy and human rights challenges, due to the aid budget reductions and the loss of technical expertise within FCDO. In principle, the merged FCDO should be better placed to deploy its development and diplomatic tools together, but this potential has not yet been realised in practice.”

Across the UK’s democracy and human rights work, ICAI reports that UK aid programmes achieved good results when they worked with both partner governments and local citizens, focused on locally salient issues, facilitated coalitions and were conducted over longer timeframes.

The report notes, however, that, in the countries included in the report, the UK government found it challenging to assist journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organisations under threat from government repression. This was in part because of the fear of damaging its relationships with partner governments, whereas other donors were more willing to take risks. In addition, ICAI reports that the UK’s insistence on providing funding to civil society organisations for specific activities, rather than funding that can be used to improve the organisation’s core functions, made it harder for them to withstand pressure from government repression.

While the UK was considered a leader on issues such as disability inclusion, the Sustainable Development Goals’ promise of ‘leaving no one behind’ and politically informed approaches to development, ICAI’s report finds that the UK is no longer considered a reliable partner or ‘thought leader’ on democracy and human rights. According to the report, this is due to the recent aid budget reductions, the lack of a clear strategic framework and the disruption caused by the establishment of the FCDO.

ICAI’s recommendations include that the FCDO should publish its approach to democracy and human rights; ensure it retains sufficient expertise to design and monitor its democracy and human rights interventions; consider whether it can learn from other countries and take more risks to support individuals and organisations facing the most serious threats from repression; and ensure better coordination, especially with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.


Read the report

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