Today the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee published a report following its inquiry into the definition and administration of official development assistance (ODA). This inquiry asked a critical question – how effective are government departments, beyond DFID, at administering their ever-growing proportion of the aid budget? And the answer for some departments is quite damning.
The report compiles evidence across the entire portfolio of UK aid. It clearly highlights that answering that question boils down to a few key factors that go back to the basics of development and good aid – showing clearly who will benefit from interventions and how they will impact poverty. It also includes being open, transparent and accountable in what they’re doing. Other parts of the UK government have much to offer in terms of contributing to the UK’s development efforts but they also need to meet the high standards expected of all UK aid.
And it is clear there is some work to do. While the committee rightly recognises that there may be something of a transition and learning period, it is clear that 3 years into the 2015 UK aid strategy departments beyond DFID still have some way to go. In particular, cross-government funds need to be improved and substantial reform across government is needed. The Prosperity Fund, for example, came in for serious critique as the Committee questioned it’s focus on poverty reduction including ‘negligible targeting towards helping the poorest and most vulnerable’. DFID, of course, should always strive to improve, but it remains a world class development agency – respected, effective and high impact. Clearly channelling more aid to other government departments creates both challenges and opportunities. If aid’s primary objective is poverty eradication, as the Committee rightly asserts, then the fact that other government departments do not do this as well as DFID is a serious concern. Tackling that problem is critical and the need for more robust checks and balances is clear – the report suggests that DFID could have a much stronger role in oversight of all ODA.
There are also questions about the efficiency, effectiveness and value for money of other departments. Most obviously, progress on meeting transparency standards seems to have been lacklustre at best. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund was of particular concern for the Committee here – with a presumption to publish information but evidence that, in practice, information was routinely redacted. This is particularly concerning given that transparency is a necessary pre-cursor to so many elements of effective aid – to know how aid is used and its impact, and to strengthen accountability and understand where improvements can be made.
The report’s recommendations are practical and would go a long way to redressing some of the challenges departments beyond DFID are facing with their aid programmes. Our reflections on those we consider to be particularly interesting and important include:
- Strengthening the oversight and responsibility of the Secretary of State for International Development and Independent Commission for Aid Impact over all ODA spending is critical, and this will obviously require political support at the highest levels from other departments and ministers.
- Strengthening the requirement for all UK aid to have poverty eradication as its primary focus is key to protecting the impact and results UK aid can achieve. Turning that from words into practice will require significant changes, including to current strategies, plans and ways of working.
- Much more and much faster progress is needed on key enablers of good development such as transparency – all government departments and funds need clear, actionable strategies for how they are going to achieve this.
So, the big question now is, how will the government respond? The report provides some useful ideas that would help to protect the effectiveness and poverty focus of UK aid – something this government has always been rightly proud of. Ensuring aid does what it is supposed to do – helping to end poverty – will also be vital for maintaining public support. The findings from this inquiry suggest that a few minor tweaks to the system will not suffice. Significant reform across government is needed to ensure that all other government departments and funds meet the high standards that DFID has set for UK aid spending.