New research by CARE International UK and Development Initiatives finds that UK aid that includes gender equality aims was disproportionately affected by aid cuts. Support for Women’s Rights Organisations was also dramatically impacted, falling 66% compared to a previous peak. Although there have been some commitments to increase funding made this year, these findings demonstrate the challenges facing the UK Government if they are to deliver on the promise of the International Women and Girls’ strategy.
The UK aid cuts have had a devastating impact on women and girls. This is confirmed by the Government’ s own Equalities Impact Assessment, which highlighted that women living in poverty and crisis contexts will miss out on healthcare, girls will not be supported to access education and there will be more deaths that could have been prevented. Women and girls discriminated against due to their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other intersecting identities face the highest impacts. Local women’s rights organisations (WROs) and women-led organisations (WLOs) play a critically important role in crisis response, but their efforts often lack political and financial support – a reality further exacerbated by the cuts.
The Government has promised to return the budget for women and girls, and this year made commitments to support gender equality throughout its international development work. Last year, CARE International UK estimated that at least £1.9bn was needed to return spending on gender equality to previous levels, and our new research with the latest data up to 2021 shows this figure now stands at £2.1bn. An estimate based on currently available data indicates this rose to £2.5bn by 2022.
As all political parties are looking to develop their international development policies ahead of the 2024 General Election, it is critical that they commit to reversing these trends and raise ambition towards feminist approaches in their policies.
Impact of UK aid cuts on gender equality
The research, based on the latest available data*, also reveals further details about how the UK aid cuts have impacted gender equality work and global leadership:
On aid spending which primarily targets gender equality:
- This fell by 30%, representing the loss of many programmes which were supporting women and girls.
- This fall was in line with the overall level of cuts seen to the aid budget, showing gender equality was not protected or prioritised as the cuts were made.
- ODA for violence against women and girls (VAWG) fell sharply between 2019 and 2021, from £47.2 million to £27.7 million, a decrease of 41%.
On aid spending which includes gender equality aims, but does not primarily target it:
- This nearly halved between 2019 and 2021, when volumes of total aid fell by around a third.
- The proportion of this work within overall aid also fell, showing it was disproportionately affected by the cuts.
On funding for women’s rights organisations, who play a vital role in advancing gender equality and already receive a small proportion of funds available:
- This continued to decrease, and in 2021 was 66% lower than its peak in 2017.
- In 2016, the UK gave the ninth largest proportion of bilateral ODA to women’s rights organisations among major donors. By 2021, the UK had fallen to 19th.
- Absolute volumes of UK bilateral aid to women’s rights organisations, movements and government institutions continued to fall in both 2020 and in 2021.
- There was also a drop of 31.2% in the UK’s funding to WROs in crisis contexts.
It is important to note that the fall experience by women’s rights organisations might actually be higher, as data recorded by the FCDO also includes UN agencies and other institutions working on these issues.
These figures show what gender equality advocates and women’s rights organisations have been reporting: the UK aid cuts meant a step back from leadership on gender equality and put at risk progress at a critical time of escalating crises around the world.
Recent commitments by the UK Government
The Government has recently made commitments towards gender equality and in tackling the barriers that women and girls face. These include:
- An International Women’s and Girls’ Strategy, launched on 8 March 2023, includes specific commitments to amplify the work of local women’s rights organisations and to increase the focus on gender equality outcomes in international development, as well as funding commitments to women’s rights organisations and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The Strategy additionally highlighted that international climate finance commitments integrating a gender equality perspective will be increased.
- A commitment to use “development leadership to empower and protect the freedom of women and girls” has been indicated as a priority outcome within the Government’s 2022-2023 Outcome Delivery Plan.
- The FCDO annual report and accounts for 2022 and 2023 show an increase of funding for the Education, Gender and Equality department. No information is available on a detailed breakdown of this budget and it is not possible to ascertain if any of that funding would reach local women’s rights organisations.
- Previously, the 2022 International Development Strategy contained commitments to supporting the rights and freedoms of women and girls.
There still remains and lack of clarity and transparency about how the budget for gender equality work will be returned, and allocated for transformative change. We also remain concerned about a lack of plan on how any of the existing commitments, such as ensuring 80 percent of bilateral aid supports gender equality, will be achieved, and how women’s rights organisations would be involved in those processes. CARE and Development Initiatives have been able to analyse the available data to make the estimates and assessments in our new research, but greater transparency and accuracy in data and reporting would greatly enhance the possibility to assess progress against commitments made.
In addition, although returning to previous funding levels and meeting existing commitments would be a good first step, we would argue that ambition should be raised beyond just returning to previous levels. In fact, we are off track in achieving gender equality through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the anti-rights movement is escalating with strong financing behind it, and conflict and the climate crisis continue to make life harder for women and girls. Adopting feminist approaches, as other governments have done, could be an effective way to move towards new programming that truly gender transformative and tackling the structural barriers to equality. It would also require applying feminist principles across all policy making, and addressing the UK’s colonial legacy in considering new models of international development that are primarily locally-led.
In November, the Government will launch a White Paper on International Development, which has seen a consultation process to gather inputs from the public and civil society organisations. Through these consultations, they have heard loud and clear recommendations from civil society organisations for gender equality to be prioritised across its work.
The White Paper’s approach and commitments will be a crucial next test to see whether women’s and girls’ voices are being taken seriously.
In order to match the practice with the declared ambition, it is necessary for the UK government to:
- Urgently plan a return to spend 0.7% GNI on aid.
- Recognise gender equality as a key driver of poverty reduction and humanitarian response, and prioritise addressing it in all strategies.
- Address both the structural (e.g. patriarchal, colonial, racist) causes and symptoms of gender inequality, with the goal of permanently changing harmful gendered power relations and norms, and at the same time support women and girls to make choices about their own lives.
- Recognise women’s rights and women and girl-led organisations as critical partners and long-term leaders, respecting their knowledge and expertise, catalysing transfer of decision-making power.
- Increase and make permanent direct, flexible, multi-annual, core funding to local women’s rights organisations (WROs) and women-led organisations.
- Prioritise gender equality across the entire international development portfolio, including in climate financing, which should be “new and additional” to existing ODA budgets, as per commitments made through UNFCCC processes.
* This analysis uses the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee’s (OECD DAC) data for the period 2014–2021 (2021 being the latest year with comprehensive DAC data) and International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) data for 2022 – although the latter remains incomplete and care should be taken in interpreting analysis of that data.