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U.K. buckles under tabloid pressure, cuts funds to Ethiopian girls program

Ethiopian girl group Yegna. (Credit: Girl Effect)

The anti-foreign aid campaign by the British tabloid the Daily Mail claimed a major victory. The U.K. pulled funding from Girl Effect, a girls rights program, after the tabloid characterized the £9 million program as a waste of taxpayer money.

“British taxpayers will no longer fund Ethiopia’s version of the Spice Girls,” the tabloid announced. “Admitting foreign aid could be spent better elsewhere, ministers pulled the plug on the five-strong girl band last night,” referring to Yegna, an Ethiopian group founded by Girl Effect to promote women and girls.

As some politicians celebrated the decision and doubled down on their calls for more spending cuts, supporters of the program criticized the government for allowing a tabloid to dictate its decisions.

“Despite the fact that no petition was signed, no Internet ‘shitstorm’ emerged and no real public outrage took place, Daily Mail front page journalism and the willing Conservative executioners of cutting the foreign aid budget work hand in hand,” Tobias Denskus, a communication for development researcher at Malmö University, wrote on his blog. “This is a powerful reminder that post-factual journalism is not just a ‘thing,’ but has real consequences for public spending – usually affecting those who do not have access to the powerful lobbying arsenal of the establishment.”

For years, the Daily Mail has campaigned against and published stories critical of foreign aid. It launched a petition in April 2016 demanding that the U.K. no longer commit 0.7 percent of its national income to foreign aid. It argued that the projected £16 billion budget by 2020 is excessive and called for the “end foreign aid madness.” More than 235,000 people signed in support.

In response to the petition, in June the British House of Commons hosted a debate about the spending target. Rather than affirm the Daily Mail‘s position, politicians from opposing parties were in general agreement on the importance of maintaining the U.K.’s aid spending target. Undeterred, the tabloid continued its criticism, publishing a list of the “10 of the most outrageous ways British foreign aid has been spent” at the end of the year.

The list included Yegna, a five-member group that uses its music, videos and radio show to raise issues like gender-based violence and early marriage. The Mail started its campaign against Yenga in 2013, dubbing it as the “Ethiopian Spice Girls.”

The inclusion of the group on the Daily Mail list in mid-December may have been the tipping point. Parliamentarians began to pressure International Development Secretary Priti Patel, and a week after the tabloid published list, she said she would review the program.

International Development Committee Tory MP Nigel Evans told Patel “Your blood must have been boiling when you saw this,” according to the Daily Mail.

On Friday Patel’s office announced that the partnership between the Department for International Development (DFID) and Girl Effect was over.

“We have taken the decision to end our partnership with Girl Effect following a review of the program,” according to a statement from DFID. “Empowering women and girls around the world remains a priority, but we judge there are more effective ways to invest U.K. aid and to deliver even better results for the world’s poorest and value for taxpayers’ money,”

While Yegna captured the headlines, the decision cuts funding support for other Girl Effect empowerment programs. Officials from Girl Effect said in a statement that the organization would continue working with Yegna to reach and empower Ethiopian girls. It thanked DFID for its initial support and its programs in Ethiopia. Girl Effect was founded by the Nike Foundation but became an independent organization that works with various donors to support girls in developing countries.

“Designed by and with girls from the start, it challenges the way people think and therefore behave towards girls. Yegna is a hand-up not a hand-out. It gives voice to a new generation and unlocks change from within communities seeking to rise out of poverty,” according to the statement. “With our partners, Girl Effect remains committed to Yegna as it grows, enables a rising generation and creates even more impact.”

The Daily Mail headline after the decision was announced read,  “Aid: Now they’re listening.” Evans lauded the decision as a “victory for common sense,” in an interview with the BBC. But Kate Osamor, the shadow international development secretary, said it is the moral duty of the U.K. to maintain its foreign aid budget and leaders should not kowtow to tabloid headlines.

“Sensationalist, headline-grabbing stories of waste and corruption have become an ever-increasing staple of British newspapers over recent months,” she wrote in Prospect Magazine today. “No policy, project or program designed to improve the lives of destitute and marginalized people around the world is exempt from criticism.”

“With the turmoil and shockwaves still being felt following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the emergence of right-wing populism in Europe, we must remain resolute and staunchly defend foreign aid and the vital work it performs. This is particularly pertinent as the U.K. seeks to expand and increase its scope for influence on the global stage,” Osamor wrote.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]