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Afghanistan aid projects were cut by UK government amid ‘total lack of transparency’

A charity helping Afghan women was among groups targeted by funding cuts before Taliban takeover, leaving thousands of vulnerable people without support

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Isabelle Stanley
21 August 2021, 12.00am
Charities supporting Afghan women and girls are among those affected by the funding cuts
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Farhad Hashimi / Alamy Stock Photo

A charity delivering vital support to Afghan women says its funding was cut by the UK government earlier this year.

Afghanaid has been forced to end a project helping 10,500 women in rural Afghanistan with livelihoods, literacy and knowledge of reproductive health. A spokesperson for the charity said it had not been warned in advance and criticised a lack of transparency over why the project had been targeted.

This week, the government promised to double aid to the country, but development groups say the pledge comes too late for many projects – leaving vulnerable people without support.

Development spending was slashed by almost £4bn earlier this year, in a move that critics said was “morally reprehensible” and would “cost lives”. Decisions over what projects receive funding cuts are made directly by the Foreign Office, but charities say there has been no discussion about exit plans.

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Afghanaid told openDemocracy that the first it heard about cuts to its funding was on a webinar run by a private development consultancy firm, in which government officials delivered the news.

The charity’s director of programme development, Zodiac Maslin-Hahn, said there was a “total lack” of justification for why this project was being cut. The government officials simply cited “financial reasons”.

“If we’d known in advance, we could have planned differently and avoided some of the challenges,” she said. According to Maslin-Hahn, £3.2m had already been invested, and the programme would have cost just £450,000 to finish, which she said would have been “pretty good value for money”.

“In these tenuous times, community trust in us has never been more important. Now, we’re having to backtrack on a massive scale. We’re going to struggle to explain what happened – it doesn’t look great for Britain.”

It was a lifeline for families in need, particularly those headed by women

Other programmes being axed include Save the Children’s work in Yemen. The charity said the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office refused to provide standard transition funding, leading to an abrupt ending.

The programme treated malnourished children, distributed food and provided hygiene education. “It was a lifeline for families in need, particularly households headed by women or elderly people, or those with disabilities,” said Rachael Sweet, head of UK influencing at Save the Children.

She said the charity was not given any explanation for the decision, suddenly leaving 213,000 vulnerable people without their support.

“It's really difficult when you see these kinds of political cuts playing out on real lives and real people,” Sweet added. “These decisions are being made without really understanding where the money comes from or what it means to take it away.”

MPs voted to approve the £4bn cut to aid in July, despite the government still not having published a clear rationale for what will be cut, when or an assessment of the impact.

But several senior Conservative MPs, including former prime minister Theresa May, opposed the move, which goes against a direct commitment laid out in the party’s 2019 election manifesto.

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Preet Gill, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international development, told openDemocracy that the handling of the cuts has demonstrated a “clear lack of transparency and accountability within the foreign and commonwealth office”.

She added: “Without transparency, organisations haven’t been able to make contingency plans, and relationships and trust with people and communities have broken down, risking lives and weakening the UK’s own standing.

“The way information about the cuts and restructures is drip-fed, or only made public when the government is forced to do so, shows a contempt for parliament and is an insult to the British public.”

Despite the cuts first being announced eight months ago, many charities are still waiting to find out how they will impact them and the people they help.

Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, a network of over 400 charities, said: “We have members who halfway through the year still don't know whether their programmes are going to be funded or not, as they've been told to expect between zero and 100% cuts.”

“It seems like [the government] is making these decisions on the hoof, without a clear plan. This is all being done very, very quickly, with very little transparency and potentially deliberate obfuscation.”

The lack of transparency has caused particular problems among small charities, which are often more dependent on government funding. Starling said that when grants are taken away, “bills still have to be paid and wages have to be paid. As a result, many small charities are closing down.”

The cuts highlight a total hypocrisy between this government’s words and actions

The UK Bangladesh Education Trust spent months applying for a £50,000 grant to provide education for child labourers. The charity was initially told the grant had been approved – subject to being formally signed off by a minister – and set about recruiting new staff to help deliver the project. But after a long delay, it was informed that sign-off had been refused.

The chair of the charity, Annette Zera, told openDemocracy the money would have provided a cohort of girls with an education: “Girls who get up at four in the morning to start caring for elderly people and babies, working very hard and very occasionally seeing their families, while being abused and harassed by men.”

Zera said the decision to cut their grant was particularly confusing, given they provide education to young girls – an aim Boris Johnson has championed since 2018, calling it “the key to unlocking so many other problems”.

“The cuts highlight a total hypocrisy between this government’s words and actions,” Gill said. “While heralding the importance of tackling the climate crisis and achieving 12 years of quality education for girls they have been cutting programmes focused on achieving both,” she added.

The Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment.

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