The Sun published a story on Friday about potholes and UK aid spending, running with the headline, “Fury as £4bn of foreign aid budget goes to fixing potholes abroad.”
And it’s a great example of how articles about UK aid are being spun to carry an anti-aid message to the British public.
The article followed a report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on the UK government’s investment in transport and urban infrastructure in developing countries, which is led by the government’s Department for International Development (DfID).
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Now, DfID has issued a rebuttal to the “entirely false” headline.
It said the headline “completely misrepresents the findings of the [ICAI] report, focusing as it does exclusively on a very narrow area of DfID’s work in this field, namely potholes.”
“This headline, as it currently stands, is wrong and presents an entirely false picture of the work that is being carried out by the department,” it said.
Fury as £4bn of Britain’s foreign aid budget goes towards fixing POTHOLES abroad https://t.co/wApPDpNnck— Sun Politics (@SunPolitics) October 12, 2018
DfID added that the paper edition — as opposed to the online version — of the story, which ran with “£4bn foreign aid to fix potholes in India” — is “even more misleading.”
According to DfID’s response, it invested £3.9 billion in 57 separate transport and infrastructure programmes that were operational during 2015 and 2016, although many of those projects would have started before 2015.
“Not one of these programmes was aimed in any significant part at fixing potholes,” it added.
DfID highlighted that the review by the ICAI — an independent organisation that “scrutinises taxpayer-funded aid” — reached a “generally positive” conclusion about DfID’s work.
“DfID’s transport and urban infrastructure work supports its strategic priorities of promoting prosperity, tackling extreme poverty, and strengthening resilience in developing countries,” read the ICAI report. “DfID has clearly identified its niche in the sector.”
The reasoning behind improving infrastructure in developing countries is actually really important, as the projects help create jobs and help countries attract investment, while also improving their safety standards.
“Transport and urban infrastructure are key ingredients for economic growth and poverty reduction,” read the ICAI report.
“Rural roads and bridges give poor people access to vital public services and markets to sell their goods, while highways, railways, and ports link economically-deprived areas to national and regional trading opportunities and can help reduce the prices of goods for consumers,” it added.
“Cities in developing countries will gain almost 2 billion new residents in the next two decades, putting urban infrastructure — including public transport, waste management, and energy supply — under enormous strain,” it continued. “Growing cities can be engines of economic growth, but without well-planned infrastructure they can generate poverty and deprivation.”
According to Tina Fahm, the ICAI commissioner who led the review: “Transport and urban infrastructure are key ingredients for economic growth and poverty reduction so it’s important to invest effectively in these areas as the UK seeks to improve people’s lives. It is therefore welcome that DfID has played a key role internationally in encouraging investment in the sector.”
DfID, meanwhile, said that it had provided a response to the Sun, which “they did not publish at all online and only in part in the print version,” which outlined why DfID believes it is important to invest in infrastructure-based work.
“It is to help countries improve on how they build infrastructure, which is key to economic development and helping some of the world’s poorest people escape poverty,” DfID said. “Reliable infrastructure helps countries become more productive, makes trade easier, and creates an environment in which business can flourish.”
The ICAI report did, however, highlight areas where work could be improved and included recommendations to help bring about that improvement.
For example, it said that in order to improve its ability to manage complex transport and urban infrastructure programmes, “DfID should make more use of staff from regional departments and centrally managed programmes to supplement capacity in country offices.”
On safeguarding — which has become a much-scrutinised area following the Oxfam scandal earlier this year — the report highlighted that DfID should ensure multilateral partners have adequate safeguarding systems and the capacity to implement these at country level.”
This isn’t to say that UK aid spending is perfect, and there are still flaws in the system of how aid funding is spent.
We quite often see stories — largely in tabloid titles — about how UK overseas development assistance is being spent on projects that don't appear to support the world’s poorest people.
As with the pothole example, sometimes there’s not a lot of truth behind the sensationalist headlines. But MPs and some of the country’s leading charities are also behind the call for change in UK aid spending — to ensure a guarantee that aid money is always used with the primary aim of reducing poverty.
A key way of doing this would be to ensure that DfID is always given final sign-off on aid spending.
DfID was deemed by a report this year to have one of the best records for transparency and accountability in the world. Other government departments, meanwhile, weren’t rated so highly.
But when departments that don’t currently have the same levels of transparency, and the same commitment to poverty reduction as DfID, that’s when problems arise.
The International Development Committee (IDC) recommended in June — a recommendation that was later rejected by the government — that DfID “should play the leading role in equipping other government departments with the skills required to ensure consistently excellent levels of [overseas development aid] administration, from transparency in reporting, to poverty reduction-driven programming.”
“The IDC is right to call out aid that doesn’t meet its core purpose of fighting poverty,” said Romilly Greenhill, UK director of the One campaign. “Their recommendation that DfID — with its world-leading expertise in using aid effectively — be given final sign-off of UK aid spent anywhere in Whitehall is spot on.”
Kirsty McNeill, executive director of policy, advocacy, and campaigns for Save the Children, echoed that.
“DfID is a world-leader in delivering high-quality aid that helps to transform the lives of the poorest people on earth," she said.
“But as spending by other departments has increased, the proportion spent in the poorest countries, where it’s needed most, and on vital services such as health care, has declined,” McNeill added. “DfID should be able to help other departments meet the high standards it sets.”
A spokesperson for the Sun told Global Citizen: "We recognise that the headline, in isolation, needs clarification — which we will be providing as soon as possible. We stand by the copy and the thrust of the story."