The charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is preparing to shut operations in 14 countries as a result of government cuts to the foreign aid budget.
The VSO, which receives half of its funding directly from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), says it will be forced to pull out of schemes across the world and make 200 people redundant unless the government intervenes.
Set up in 1958, the VSO works to promote volunteering to fight global poverty and inequality. UK volunteers made up almost 1,250 of about 4,000 participants last year, and the organisation counts the former taoiseach of Ireland Leo Varadkar and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, among its alumni.
Funding for its Volunteering for Development scheme comes to an end in a fortnight, jeopardising a programme that represents almost a third of the charity’s work. If the grant is not renewed, the UK governmentwould “effectively be shutting its entire support for international volunteering action in the space of a month”, the charity said.
It follows the closure in February of the International Citizen Service – which was led by VSO in partnership with other organisations – which offered overseas volunteer placements for 18- to 35-year-olds, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds. The programme was ended because of uncertainty about funding in February.
Unless the government steps in to support the grant, the VSO will also suspend its Covid-19 response initiative in 18 countries, cutting off support to 4.5 million people.
The winding down of the organisation’s operations comes amid plans for large-scale cuts to funding for overseas aid, with the government deciding to slash it by at least 50%.
The proposed cuts over a short space of time have been described as catastrophic by Sarah Champion, the Labour chair of parliament’s international development select committee. She said: “There is no doubt that lives will be lost as a consequence and our global standing as humanitarians destroyed.”
The plans, which have provoked an outcry from the opposition, have yet to be finalised, but Downing Street has recently indicated that the spending reduction may not go to a vote in the Commons.
Last week, when asked whether the cut in the aid budget from 0.7% of GDP – as set out in law under the 2015 International Development Act – would be subject to a Commons vote or a new act, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson declined to provide confirmation either way.
The cuts were announced by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, at last year’s spending review in response to the economic costs of the coronavirus crisis.
A government spokesperson said: “The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid. We are still working through what this means for individual programmes and decisions have not yet been made.”