• Heather D. Flowe, PhD

GRCF cuts and broken promises – a first look at ‘Global Britain’

Last week, we learned that cuts to the UK’s overseas aid budget will carry a heavy price indeed. A number of important projects supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) look set to have their funding revoked. Let’s be clear, it will remove support for our colleagues in the Global South, and harm people across the world at a time when support is most needed. Lives will change. People will die.

UK Houses of Parliament

You had better believe I’m angry.


I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a researcher. Yes, there is the never-ending cycle of late nights and early mornings, and there is the juggling of research, teaching and the expanse of extra-curricular roles and requirements that come from my employer and beyond, but I am fortunate. I get to work alongside incredible people both in and outside of academia, who share similar stories of being overwhelmed by the tasks at hand and powering through regardless to make a meaningful, positive change to the world.


A bad day can soon be turned around by a conversation with such a person. It reminds me that what we do matters. Many of those people have been supported by GCRF funding.


The GCRF has enabled UK-based researchers to develop new networks and projects in low and middle-income countries across the world. It promotes sustainability both in outputs and in research practices, and encourages a ‘decentreing’ of the UK voice – leaning instead on grassroots expertise and locally-led solutions.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the GCRF invested £12.4m to establish five UK-led global vaccine networks involving hundreds of academic organisations in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa.


The key is in the name - Global Challenges Research Fund. Even where research is rooted in one country, it is designed to provide worldwide benefit.


One such project is the Rights for Time network, comprised of interdisciplinary research taking place in multiple countries – currently Rwanda, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Kenya. Collectively we are bringing the hidden legacies of conflict directly into humanitarian protection, human rights policy and practice. Our ambition is to get policy makers, law workers and local and national governments to take the long times of atrocity and protection seriously.

Group of people discussing a table - picture from Rights for Time

These are places where long periods of violence have produced enduring challenges, particularly for vulnerable communities and groups, such as refugees, people who have been displaced, women, and children.


My own project within the network, led by the Wangu Kanga Foundation in Kenya, works with survivors of sexual violence to both support them, and to inform future interventions from both policy makers and law enforcement. We have been working together since 2018, and have made so much progress. But now what? All of the knowledge and advocacy work will come to an end, and our plans to further study initiatives that will increase rape survivors’ access to justice will be shelved.


This is just one of many projects under threat of closure as a result of the proposed change. There are many tackling such ills as famine and water pollution, diarrhoea and stunted growth, and others helping people access vital medical care or education.


The idea of losing such projects is heartbreaking. Months and months go into securing the funding in the first place and it is rarely a simple process. But I’ll live. There will be other projects in different places, and other (albeit fewer) sources for funding. But this anger is not about me. It’s about our leaving our peers in the Global South who have been leading these projects worse off, and the people our research will no longer be able to assist.


Wangu and the team in Kenya will continue performing miracles on a shoestring budget, because it is what they do. But we had so much we could learn from her and the project, so much that could be replicated in other countries, so much that could have helped survivors of sexual violence across the globe. That includes the UK too, where our own record on supporting survivors and convicting perpetrators is rather appalling.


Yes, we knew that the funding landscape was set to change – the Government have hardly been subtle about their intentions on that front. Colleagues and I discussed our concerns about the future of funding for projects and talked about how we might adapt to continue our work. But for the UKRI to go so far as to actually revoke pre-agreed funding is reprehensible.


The organisations we work with had these GCRF-funded projects woven into their strategic plans for the year. They do not run large surpluses in case of an emergency because their funding goes immediately towards their frontline work due to its critical nature. There is no safety net or ready-made alternative source of funding.


Perhaps we should not be surprised. We’ve seen this same Government renege on their commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid. I have my doubts that it will rebound under their tenure. Surely, if ever there was a time to show strong leadership and help those who need it most it would be in the midst of a global pandemic.

No, I don’t buy the ‘cost effectiveness’ argument. Others have better articulated the value of foreign aid more broadly, and for aid-funded research. But any argument against aid spend rings hollow in the year that Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned a review into the viability of an unnecessary £33bn bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.


Governments have the capacity to find resource when it is needed. This resource is needed. To remove it is a political choice which begs a more philosophical question.


Is this what the oft-heralded Global Britain is to be in a post-Brexit world? Is this who we are?


I repeat – people will die. These cuts will abandon people to whom we have pledged our support. Following through on our promise should be a moral imperative.


I am exasperated. But what can we do?


In the short term, we can try to channel that anger into something positive.


Write to your local MP (this is not a wholly partisan issue, up to 60 Tory MPs have voted against the aid cuts). Share stories of the positive impact of global research with people you know (and people you don’t). Scream from rooftops if you have to.


And, if you can, donate to non-profit organisations such as the Wangu Kanja Foundation, or similar groups who have been cut off from essential support, and help them to continue their essential work.