Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab boards a plane after visiting Jakarta
Secretary for foreign, commonweatlh and development affairs Dominic Raab boards a plane after visiting Jakarta. Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

UK aid in 2020: What do the provisional statistics tell us?

The UK government published the provisional statistics on how UK aid was spent for 2020 this week.

These statistics provide a first look at how UK aid shaped up in this unusual year, which included budget cuts related to the UK’s shrinking GNI and the government’s refusals to share data on the cuts.

Here are our highlights and most pressing concerns from the data.

Headline stats

  • As planned, the government spent exactly 0.7% GNI on official development assistance (ODA) in 2020, which came to £14.5 billion. This is £712 million less than was spent in 2019.
  • £9.492 billion was spent as bilateral aid, while £4.979 billion went to multilaterals as core funding.
  • Africa remains the biggest regional recipient, with 55.4% of the total ODA spend, followed by Asia with 38.9%.
  • The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is the biggest spender of ODA, but also saw the biggest drop in its budget compared to 2019.

UK aid is increasingly spent outside the FCDO

The trend of diverting aid spending from the former-Department for International Development (DFID, now FCDO) to other government departments continued. FCDO remained the biggest spender of ODA, spending 73.7% of UK aid, but saw a decrease in its overall share of ODA, despite now covering spending from the former DFID and Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Of the other government departments, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) spent the most, with 7% of total ODA. This continuing its year-on-year increase as climate rises up the government’s priority list.

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Unsurprisingly, the biggest increases in departmental allocations reflect the government’s intention to spend ODA in line with British interests. The Home Office and the Department for International Trade saw the biggest increases in spend, while the previously unfunded “Exports Credits Guarantee Department” went from receiving £0 in 2019 to £44m in 2020. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) lost out, seeing big decreases in their allocations compared to other departments.

Where was aid spent?

In terms of spend by region, 58.1% of bilateral FCDO ODA was country- or region- specific, a decrease from 63.8% in 2019. Africa received £2.2billion from FCDO bilateral spend, followed by Asia with £1.5billion. Most regions saw cuts in total spend in 2020, with Asia receiving proportionally bigger cuts than the other areas.

The only region to have an increase in funding was the Pacific, which received a small but significant boost of £12million. This may reflect an early shift to the Indo-Pacific region as laid out in the government’s Integrated Review, or could also be an indication of the government’s focus on climate programmes in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

£1.39 billion, 9.5% of the aid budget, was spent on activities linked to the Coronavirus pandemic response. In thinking about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on UK aid, focus has often been on the cuts that resulted from the drop in GNI and the government’s decision to drop the commitment to 0.7%. But the pandemic was a global emergency that also dramatically increased people’s needs, both directly and indirectly from the wider economic fallout.

Multilateral spending is unclear

On the ratio of multilateral to bilateral spending, there was a slight increase in spend through core multilateral contributions compared to 2019, while spend through bilateral channels decreased by £752m. This is at odds with the findings of the ICAI Covid-19 procurement information note, which reported that the majority of cuts (68%) made in 2020 were due to deferring payments to multilaterals.

It’s not clear from the information available whether there were initially much larger disbursements to multilaterals planned or whether the cuts were simply not as severe as anticipated.

What’s been left out?

These provisional aid statistics provide the headline figures of how and where UK aid was spent in 2020 across a few dimensions. We’ve outlined what they do tell you, but there’s lots that isn’t available yet.

We do not have a breakdown by sector or by country, nor can we know the specifics of disbursements to different multilateral organisations or entities like the CDC. We’ll have to wait until the final stats are published in Autumn 2021.

What do we know now about the 2020 cuts?

On balance, not a lot. Then again, that’s not the purpose of the aid statistics. The provisional aid statistics are meant to provide an initial overview of how aid was spent. In a normal year, that would be good enough, but 2020 wasn’t an ordinary year. The coronavirus pandemic caused both a drop in GNI (and a resulting drop in the aid budget), but also dramatically increased needs. The government has once again missed an opportunity to be transparent about the aid cuts.

In July, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced plans for cuts worth £2.9 billion. To date, the government has refused to answer questions about where those aid cuts have fallen, citing the imminent publication of the aid stats. Even accounting for the fact that these are only provisional, the aid stats don’t answer questions about how much was cut or from where or anything about the impact of the cuts on people’s lives.

The government denied Bond’s freedom of information request into the details of the 2020 aid cuts, but we have requested a review of this denial. We are waiting for a reply.

What’s next?

The trends outlined in these statistics offer insight into some of the priorities and decisions taken about ODA last year. In the Autumn, the government will publish the final aid statistics. In the meantime, we urge them to make public the details of the aid cuts made in 2020 as well as the much larger round of cuts being made now.


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