Strike went ahead despite calls to postpone it due to COVID-19, with riot police using tear gas to disperse crowds.
London, United Kingdom – The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has denounced a decision by the United Kingdom to slash the level of funding it gives to the agency’s flagship family planning programme by 85 percent, saying the cut will have “devastating” consequences for millions of women and girls across the world.
UNFPA said in a statement on Wednesday that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government had informed the sexual and reproductive health agency it intended to retreat on its initial pledge of £154m ($211m) for the programme this year, reducing its support to £23m ($32m) instead.
The UK is the largest donor to the initiative, which provides contraceptives and maternal health care to millions of women and girls in the world’s poorest countries.
UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem said the £131m ($182m) pulled back by London would have helped prevent about 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions.
She added that while the agency recognises the “challenging situation” facing donor governments such as the UK amid the coronavirus pandemic, it “deeply regrets the decision of our longstanding partner and advocate to step away from its commitments at a time when inequalities are deepening and international solidarity is needed more than ever”.
“When funding stops, women and girls suffer, especially the poor, those living in remote, underserved communities and those living through humanitarian crises,” Kanem said.
UNFPA said the UK government had also notified the agency that it would scale back donations to the latter’s core operating funds – which cover the cost of offices, staff and a range of other administrative expenses – by £12m ($17m).
It added it was assessing the “full scope and impact” of the cuts and had begun formulating “mitigation strategies” aimed at ensuring it could deliver supplies and programmes as planned for the remainder of 2021.
‘A betrayal of women and girls’
Aid organisations were quick to condemn the UK’s move, which comes after a decision by Johnson’s government late last year to reduce overall spending on foreign aid.
Plan International UK said the scaleback of support for UNFPA would “result in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands more women and girls during pregnancy and childbirth” and ran against manifesto pledges concerning girls’ education and infant mortality rates made by the ruling Conservative Party in the build-up to the UK’s last general election.
“Today’s cuts are a betrayal of women and girls around the world,” Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK’s chief executive, said in a statement issued to Al Jazeera.
Caldwell urged Johnson’s government to “come to its senses and … urgently change course” on its “shameful” decision, warning the eyes of the world were on London as the UK prepares to host a G7 summit and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) later this year.
“While other G7 countries are maintaining or increasing their aid commitments, the UK Government is leaving behind a trail of empty words and broken promises. This is not the ‘Global Britain’ we want the world to see and suggests to other nations that the word of the UK Government counts for little,” she said.
Echoing Caldwell’s remarks, Oxfam GB called on officials to “think again” on the funding cutback.
“Keeping our promises to the world’s poorest matters more than ever in the midst of a global pandemic,” Anna Marriott, Oxfam GB’s health policy advisor, said in a statement issued to Al Jazeera.
UK slashes overall aid budget
Responding to a request for comment from Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the “seismic impact” of the coronavirus pandemic on the UK economy had forced officials to “take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid”.
“We are working with suppliers and partners on what this means for individual programmes,” the spokesperson said, adding the UK was still committed to spending more than £10bn ($14bn) in 2021 to tackle poverty and climate change, as well as improve global health.
The UK’s decision in November to cut back foreign aid outlay from a legally binding target of 0.7 percent of Gross National Income to 0.5 percent translates into more than £4bn ($5.5bn) less being spent on programmes across the world.
The FCDO, which oversees the foreign aid budget, has yet to confirm which other programmes will be affected.
Johnson’s government has previously said the cutback was needed to save public funds during the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the UK economy, and would be temporary. Opinion polling conducted late last year also suggested the decision had the backing of two-thirds of Britons.
But critics of the move – including several former prime ministers, religious leaders and a number of charities – called for the 0.7 percent spending target to be kept to, warning the reduction in the aid budget would effectively sever a lifeline for some of the world’s poorest people.
Earlier this week, it emerged that UK aid funding for lifesaving water, sanitation and hygiene projects is set to be cut by more than 80 percent, according to a leaked FCDO memo obtained by the BBC.