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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

UK Overseas Development Aid

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

UK Overseas Development Aid

UK Overseas Development Aid

After a week when the UK government announced a huge increase in defence spending and a reduction in UK overseas development aid, both of which decisions I am opposed to, I want to show an example of how the present aid budget is being wasted.

First however, I think that it is worth quoting in full an article from, written by Victoria Honeyman, Associate Professor of British Politics, University of Leeds which sets out better than I can, how the decision to reduce the aid budget is both short-sighted and damaging to the UK’s reputation.

‘As part of his spending review, chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a cut to the UK’s foreign aid budget, which will be reduced from 2021 from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%.

The saving of approximately £4 billion will surely be welcome in some quarters. The impact of dealing with COVID-19 has caused the British economy to contract and Britain is facing an economic crisis which is likely to dwarf the impact of the 2008/9 banking crisis

Despite the Conservative party manifesto promising to maintain aid spending at the 0.7% level, there has been huge pressure on the spending promise. It is not a popular policy, particular among Conservative voters, and the merging of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had made a reduction likely even before the impact of COVID was entirely apparent.

However, critics of the cut argue that it is short sighted and that the UK’s overseas development aid (ODA) budget is money which is very well spent. In fact, foreign office minister Baroness Sugg has announced she intends to resign in protest at the move. So what benefits does Britain’s ODA budget provide – not simply for developing nations, but for Britain as the donor nation, and how might this cut impact on those?

The 0.7% spending target for overseas development aid was established by the United Nations in the Pearson Commission report, published in 1969. For critics of that spending target, the 0.7% figure is outdated and arbitrary and only a very small number of nations actually achieve it year on year. The largest aid donor in the world, the United States, donates approximately 0.2%-0.3% of its gross national income each year, but the size of its economy dwarfs all other donors.

For the UK, this commitment was made by Tony Blair’s government and was then enshrined in law in 2015, with a Liberal Democrat private member’s bill being given parliamentary time by the coalition government. For the Blair government, and those that followed it – up to and including Theresa May’s administration – the foreign aid budget was a way of buying influence and friends.

By investing in developing nations, the UK could help to develop emerging markets, and that investment allowed them to reap the financial rewards of close trading links with developing nations. In addition to developing and accessing new markets, the ODA spend allowed Britain to encourage developing nations to engage with the international community in ways the UK thought was beneficial, whether that was encouraging free trade or democratic practices.

Money talks a language universally understood. Supporters of Britain’s ODA budget have suggested that it has been a wise investment by UK PLC. They point to the fact that the majority of the money “invested” in developing nations has led to subsequent gains for the UK treasury although the diffuse nature of that relationship make empirical evidence difficult to come by. The select committee which oversees ODA spending is a formidable organisation because of its cross-party structure and while corruption can occur with ODA spending, the oversight of that spending is extensive.

For their part, many of those developing nations were former British colonies – much of the UK ODA budget is spent in former British colonies and Commonwealth member states – and the aid budget allowed the British to create new, friendly relationships with nations which didn’t have the most positive view of dealings with the UK. Any discussion of colonial reparations, as happened in 2015 when David Cameron visited Jamaica, can be ignored with such an extensive ODA budget.

Additionally, as Britain struggles to maintain a position of international power (particularly post-Brexit when it is no longer part of the EU), a leading role as defender of the developing world gives the UK an influential role and a voice once again in global governance. If you wish to punch above your weight you need to have something to help you land the punch – and in the 21st century, Britain’s role as a leading foreign aid donor has been a key factor.

The savings that Sunak is expected to make from this cut are approximately £4 billion, but the impact could be immense. As many charities will tell you, the key to donation is sustainability. A one-off donation can only do so much, but repeated donations can achieve so much more.

The reduction of Britain’s gross national income because of the impact of the pandemic meant that aid spending was already expected to fall sharply in the next financial year. By cutting the ODA budget further, the government will cut off important development projects. Fewer children in developing countries will go to school, more women will die in childbirth, more people will go hungry.

The impact of that will not simply be felt in those developing nations which ODA has done so much to help. It will be felt in the UK when those new markets contract, when the deals with developing nations reduce in frequency, when the Treasury receives less in taxation payments.

If Rishi Sunak needs to cut spending – and everyone agrees that money needs to be saved – there are many other places he could sensibly begin. Cutting the ODA budget is short sighted and potentially damaging – not just to the UK’s collective conscience but our bank balance.’

This was also the week that the UK announced that it would be providing the French government with £30 million to pay for increased beach patrols and other measures to stop immigrants from attempting to cross the Channel and reach the UK; another deluded attempt to stop immigrants from reaching the UK. What Priti Patel should realise, as the daughter of immigrants, is that people from the South are trying to reach Europe and the UK (I don’t think the Tories think that we are part of Europe now) in order to improve their life chances and trying to stop them ‘on the beaches’ is futile. The only real way to stop the flood will be a massive transfer of resources from the North to the South to provide people in the South with better life chances and opportunities where they live so that they do not feel that they must migrate and increasing UK development aid, rather than reducing it would assist in this process.

There is also of course, more importantly, the moral case for a transfer of resources in that much of the wealth of the developed North is based on resources taken from the South and on slavery and the time has come for restitution.

The main focus of this blog however is to highlight one way that UK development aid funds, such as they are, are being needlessly wasted.

I was in Sierra Leone about three years ago working on a project for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation when I was shown drawings of some small hospitals that were being constructed around Freetown and which were being funded by DFID and managed by UNFPA. The buildings had been designed by a local engineering firm with no apparent expertise in the design of health facilities.

The design of these hospitals raised serious concerns in terms of health facility planning in that:

  • There appeared to be no sterilisation unit and no clean or dirty utility stores.

  • There were no staff changing areas, showers or toilets.

  • Corridors were too narrow to allow two hospital trolleys to pass.

  • There were no showers or toilets for operating theatre staff and no changing area for the minor theatre staff.

  • The operating theatres were entered directly from public corridors, with no ‘red zones’. There were no waiting or recovery areas for patients or nurses’ stations attached to the theatres.

  • Infected waste from the operating theatre sluice rooms went out through the theatres which would have seriously compromised sterility.

  • The wards were very small for the numbers of patients shown, there was insufficient space for curtains around the patients’ beds, there were no wash-basins in the wards and the wards did not have direct access to toilets and showers.

  • The delivery rooms were very small for the numbers of beds shown, there was no privacy for the women giving birth and no wash-basins or sinks.

  • There was no operator’s area shown in the X-ray room and no indication of any protection to the walls and door (a single door was shown but there should be double doors to allow access for hospital trolleys).

There was also concern over the design of the buildings in terms of climate control. Freetown has a hot and humid climate for most of the year and no efforts had been made while developing the design to deal with this. There was no protection to any of the windows from the sun which would lead to over-heating and discomfort for patients and staff. This was further exacerbated by the L-shaped plan of the building which meant that some rooms would be facing east or west and be subject to low-angle sun in the mornings and afternoons. There was also no provision for cross-ventilation to any of the rooms which could have improved comfort levels.

The illustration at the top of this piece shows exterior views of a typical hospital and the drawings at the bottom of this piece show the floor plans.

The main issues were therefore that:

  • The hospitals as designed would provide poor value to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

  • They would be difficult to use by health professionals and would provide a poor level of service to patients.

  • The poor design and functionality of the buildings would reflect badly on DFID and the British Government.

  • The hospitals were a poor use of British taxpayers’ money.

On subsequent visits to Sierra Leone, I discovered that DFID were funding other health facilities in the country managed by UNFPA and designed by the same local consultants all with similar design problems. UNFPA do seem to be an agency who’s expertise is in the design and construction of health facilities or the management of such projects and, as has been said before, the consultants do not seem to have any expertise in the design of health facilities so the question is, why are both of these organisations being used by DFID? Unfortunately I have not been able to get an answer to this.

The underlying problem is that DFID no longer has any in-house expertise in the design and construction of health facilities or for that matter any other building types. When I started working for DFID (or the Overseas Development Administration, ODA, as it then was) in the 1970s, the agency had its own team of architects and engineers who oversaw all construction projects funded by the British government in developing countries.

One instance of this is that after the Falklands war, Sierra Leone was given two projects by Margaret Thatcher’s government as a thank you for the assistance that Sierra Leone provided to the UK in fighting the war (it is doubtful if the UK could have pursued the war without Sierra Leone’s assistance in providing re-provisioning facilities in its port and airfields but not many people know that (© M. Caine)). One of these was the Certificate Training Centre at Njala University which is documented in the ‘Projects’ section of this web-site. An architect from ODA came to Sierra Leone to brief us on the project and then visited regularly to monitor the work that we were doing and the progress of the project. Similarly, when I went to St Helena and then to the Solomon Islands, my work was closely monitored by an architect from ODA.

Unfortunately, ODA during one of its many reorganisations deemed it fit to rid itself of its in-house team of architects and engineers and in doing so lost not only their architectural and engineering expertise and oversight but the organisation’s institutional memory pertaining to what will or will not work with regards to construction projects. If the in-house team had still been in place, I doubt very much that the disasters that are happening in Sierra Leone with regards to the projects described above would have been allowed to happen. The organisation now depends upon the services of consultants when it is felt necessary to obtain advice on the design and management of construction projects but this only works (and then not always) if the manager of the project feels that it is necessary to employ such consultants and not just let the local DFID team employ local consultants and implementing agencies with the results described above.

Following my visit to Sierra Leone I raised my concerns about the hospitals with the DFID Deputy Country Manager in Freetown and I also wrote to DFID in London raising these issues but I did not get very far with either approaches. I then wrote to my MP who raised a question in Parliament with a similar lack of result. Maybe now that overseas aid has been moved back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office there might be a move to again set up an in-house team of architects and engineers to oversea construction projects? I am however not very optimistic but the government and the public in UK should realise that if this or something similar does not happen, then large amounts of British tax-payers’ aid money will continue to be mis-spent and wasted.

UK Overseas Development Aid
UK Overseas Development Aid
UK Overseas Development Aid


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource

The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


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