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Making the most of 0.5% – what now for the UK aid budget?

The UK government has announced that the 2015 commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid will be reduced in 2021 to 0.5%. Long before the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this protected budget was divisive, and the fact that it has now been reduced will be a surprise to few. The consequences this will have on Britain’s longstanding work to support people living in poverty and insecurity around the globe, and the country’s international reputation and influence, remain to be seen.


0.7% foreign aid

As programmes are cut and budgets shrink, the remaining 0.5% must now be focused on having the greatest possible impact it can. Understanding what works and why and making evidence-informed decisions about how to maximise the value of UK investments overseas is more important than ever. Regardless of the quantity, the quality of UK aid must not be sacrificed.

With aid projects being reviewed against their objectives, impact and value for money, and departments across government reviewing their evidence bases, we’ve been thinking about what our organisation, and the partners we work with, must now do to ensure that quality – so it can have the greatest possible impact on people’s lives.

1. Learning from past programming, and across departments, must be shared

We reflected a few months ago on the DFID/FCO merger and what it might mean for evidence-informed decision making, transparency and learning. With UK foreign policy intersecting across development, security and economic interests more explicitly than ever before, it is vital cross-departmental and indeed, cross-programme and policy learning, is captured, shared, and used to inform decisions.

Programmes such as the Department of Health and Social Care’s Fleming Fund intentionally share their learning on global health security through workshops with other teams. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has developed ‘cross-departmental Theories of Change’ to articulate how the fund can deliver alongside diplomatic and military efforts. Initiatives such as this help to build consensus and understanding – with shared goals and frameworks that meet combined security, diplomatic and aid objectives. Replicating these efforts across aid programming will support the cohesive strategy the UK government has in mind.

The FCDO will decide what happens to 93.5% of the aid budget – how it is allocated to other departments and what the FCDO spends itself. Whilst the FCDO benefits from DFID’s long track record and expertise, plus its commitment to transparency and lesson-learning, other departments have in the past struggled with quality.

There is a huge opportunity for the FCDO to leverage this expertise, insight and influence to support long-term and sustainable change within other departments. Our hope is that DFID’s legacy of quality continues in the face of cuts and competing priorities.

2. Quick, adaptive evaluations must build useful and useable evidence

Monitoring, evaluation and learning boost accountability around how taxpayer money is spent, strengthens decision-making and supports impact. It is crucial for better programming.

As well as balancing budgets and competing priorities, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how important it is to be flexible and to focus on impactful programming that supports long-term goals in the short-term.

Our experience has shown that rapid evaluations that produce useful evidence can support adaptive management and inform decision-making. This kind of evaluation can be done in much shorter timeframes than more traditional models and can reach the same level of quality – but you do need everyone to be pulling in the same direction. When deciding how best to use evaluation budgets, government commissioners should consider using this approach more often to ensure both quality and impact.

Of course, these rapid evaluations should be part of a continual lesson-learning process and be one element of a culture of evidence-use and accountability. They can help to ensure quality in times of change and redesign, such as those UK aid programmes are currently facing.

3. We must build the long-term case for the value of the UK aid budget

Writing in the Financial Times1, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab outlined the global challenges where the UK can make the most difference: tackling poverty and climate change, strengthening global health security, boosting trade and economic development, and addressing conflict and humanitarian crises. In making these commitments, he also stated ‘we will double down on the effectiveness of our aid’ – a statement we welcome.

FCDO programming has the potential to not only deliver results for the world’s poorest and most marginalised – it can also generate evidence and insights into what works and why and use this to influence and shape the actions and behaviours of others.

Many of the most pressing challenges facing the world today can only be overcome by collective responses from governments, multilateral institutions and other development actors. The equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines is a case in point. The COVAX Facility – set up by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and the World Health Organization – requires buy-in from high-income countries, philanthropists, the private sector and others to ensure that eventual COVID-19 vaccines are distributed equitably around the world, regardless of national income. The UK has a critical role to play in facilitating initiatives like this.

Aid programmes have the potential to have impact beyond their remit. Aid is a crucial element of effective international relations that can support improved trade and diplomatic relationships. Evaluation must be used to demonstrate these successes and the returns on investment from UK aid and initiatives such as COVAX. Demonstrable positive impacts on the recipients of UK aid, on the British public and on the UK’s influence globally will help to build the longer-term case for the value of the UK aid budget and shore up the eventual restoration of the 0.7% commitment.

Looking to the future

The UK government has indicated that the budget cut is only a temporary measure and we hope this proves to be the case. In the meantime, the remaining budget must be used as effectively as possible.

Championing evidence, maintaining flexibility and working globally must all play a role as the UK government reshapes and prioritises its aid programming.

Aid is but one element of international development, particularly as the UK government now sees it. It has a key role to play in influencing and shaping a better world, from investment flows and trade patterns to human rights and climate change. But in the face of the myriad challenges the UK currently faces, we must not lose sight of why we do development and why we need to do it well so that it has the greatest possible impact on people living in poverty and insecurity.


  1. 1. The article is also available on the UK government website: