The government has been accused of “burying its head in the sand” over how to make sure overseas development assistance (ODA) is spent most effectively in the pursuit of ending poverty.
Back in June, the International Development Committee published a report that included its findings from months of investigating how the UK spends its ODA.
And one of its recommendations for making sure the humanitarian aid was spent as effectively as possible was to give the secretary of state for international development ultimate responsibility for overseeing and signing off on all of the UK’s ODA.
But the government has this week rejected that recommendation — meaning a “disappointing” result for charities and MPs who had pushed for the change.
The UK’s Department for International Development has excellent accountability and transparency in terms of how money is spent. The Aid Transparency Index earlier this year ranked DfID as third in the world for transparency of aid spending.
The trouble, however, is that other government departments don’t currently have the same levels of transparency and the same commitment to poverty reduction as DfID. Nevertheless, an increasing amount of ODA is being spent through departments that aren’t DfID — and it could give rise to more projects that don’t have poverty reduction at their hearts (the kind often held up by UK aid critics of how funding is going to waste).
In 2017, about 18% of ODA was spent by government departments other than DfID — mainly, according to global development media platform Devex, these departments were the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; the Home Office, and the cross-government Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund (CSSF).
The last of these, the CSSF, has previously been criticised for blurring the lines between aid spending and other spending. But the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on UK aid is enshrined in law, and it’s very important that aid money is correctly and effectively spent to ensure that the world's poorest people receive the benefits they should.
Now, a cross-government strategy aims to have a third of ODA being spent by departments other than DfID by 2020, according to Devex.
And charities and aid experts are concerned about the impact that will have on the UK’s reputation as a world leader for humanitarian aid.
Ever wondered what a landmine in action looks like? This is a land mine and this is how devastating it is. #UKaid will help protect more than 800,000 people around the world from this lethal threat. #aidworks@DFID_UKpic.twitter.com/bEZbresIlD— UK in Sudan 🇬🇧 (@UKinSudan) September 12, 2018
“It is disappointing that the government fails to make basic transparency standards and a real focus on poverty reduction a condition for departments besides DfID to manage more aid, potentially undermining Penny Mordaunt’s pledge to ensure that ‘UK aid cannot be better spent,’” said Katy Chakrabortty, Oxfam GB’s head of advocacy, in a statement.
“The prime minister has recently spoken proudly about the value of UK aid to the world’s poorest people,” she said. “We have a global reputation to protect. The coming budget should be used to make sure the vast majority of aid is spent by departments best able to uphold that reputation.”
“It’s disappointing that government has buried its head in the sand in response to such explicit criticisms of aid spent by departments other than DfID,” said Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, an umbrella group for UK aid organisations — including Global Citizen — in a statement provided to Global Citizen.
“The IDC’s recommendations provided DfID with the perfect opportunity to hold other government departments to account for their spending of UK aid,” it added.
Bond further said that any department that is spending aid money must “be accountable to DfID to ensure they are meeting the same standards and working to the same objectives — to alleviate poverty and reach the world’s poorest people.”
The government’s response to the IDC report, however, said that “departments and their accounting officers hold financial responsibility and accountability for the delivery of their share of ODA spend and for seeking approval.”
“These long-established structures ensure that lines of accountability are clear so that there is no blurring or overlap of responsibility between departments,” it added. “That said, departments and organisations are expected to work closely together where appropriate to ensure a coordinated and successful delivery of ODA.”
It further said that the secretary of state for international development is co-chair of the ODA Ministerial Group, which has oversight of the UK’s ODA.