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Published on: 30/04/2021

The UK government plans to cut spending on bilateral water, sanitation and hygiene projects by 80%. Leaked Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office plans have triggered widespread condemnation.

The UK Secretary of State for International Development signed a global call to action last year – at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic - to prioritise WASH and to maintain funding. This ended with a united call ‘as leaders, this is our chance to save lives’.

The reduction in bilateral spending - from 150 million GBP to 30 million GBP – turns the UK into an unreliable partner in WASH and extends to tearing up project commitments that have already been made. This is going to cost lives, not save them.

A leaked briefing for ministers published in the UK’s Daily Telegraph advised them to deflect criticism by focusing attention on “shifting our approach to strengthening sustainable and resilient national WASH services”.

Working with Governments and civil society to strengthen WASH systems and increase resilience is pretty much the central focus of IRC work around the world. We know, and our partners know, that this is not done by slashing budgets and closing down projects.

We also know from our work on the true costs of sustainable WASH services that headline figures are not everything. We have often been critical about pledges just to spend money on new infrastructure that fails because the systems and capacities needed to sustain services are weak.

But strengthening systems requires more resources, not less. What really matters is to drive up investments over time and use those resources well, to find the best way to transform lives for the most vulnerable. And we know that in this period above all others, good sanitation and hygiene and having water available for drinking and handwashing is saving lives.

The UK has put itself at the centre of a debate in international development about investing in global health and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The World Bank estimates that 114 billion USD is needed annually to achieve the SDG WASH targets 6.1 and 6.2; while WHO and UNICEF have put a 3.6 billion USD total price tag on getting basic water in all health care facilities in the 47 least developed countries. The 150 million GBP that the UK used to spend on bilateral WASH investments was a contribution and the cutbacks are a breach of its publicly made promises.

In the middle of a pandemic and a climate crisis, the UK is sending a potentially catastrophic signal for people without safely managed water and sanitation, as well as people who have only recently gained access to those services in countries that need to invest at breakneck speed to achieve the SDGs in 2030.

There is a major domestic row in the UK at present about spending on wallpaper, lampshades and furniture in the flat of the Prime Minister – trivial sums and issues compared to these matters or life or death. But the internal row centres on issues of integrity in public life. This international cutback is also a question of integrity – of keeping promises and pledges, especially those made to those with less power and less money.

That UK has been a leader in international development and in WASH in the past. Indeed, many of our own IRC staff trained in British institutions which have an international reputation.

But the UK is now going in a new direction: #ExitWASH. If it leads this time on cutting back on aid to pay for the cost of fighting COVID-19, it will undermine hopes for the SDGs and for achieving the right to water. It will be the UK that pulled the plug on hope and trust.


Image credit: Sanga - Adobe Stock


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