Aid minister does not need signoff on ODA spending, says UK government

The United Kingdom flag. Photo by: Iker Merodio / CC BY-ND

LONDON — The United Kingdom government has rejected a proposal to give the secretary of state for international development ultimate oversight and signoff on aid spending, as ever-more official development assistance is spent outside her department.

The intervention comes amid controversy over the cross-government strategy, which aims to see one-third of ODA spent by government departments other than the Department for International Development by 2020. Aid experts have raised concerns about the transparency and accountability of funds spent under the scheme, arguing that other departments are not as well-placed as DFID to spend ODA effectively in line with poverty reduction goals

More on the U.K. government’s response to the IDC inquiry:

UK will 'continue to reassess' its use of ODA definition if reforms cannot be made

The U.K. government has said it is committed to working with OECD partners to reform the international rules around official development assistance, but that it will "continue to reassess our approach" to the definition in order to achieve a "modernization agenda."

A report published by the International Development Committee in June, the result of a months-long inquiry into ODA administration, recommended that the secretary of state for international development have ultimate responsibility for oversight of the U.K.’s ODA, and that DFID be given final signoff on all ODA spent.

In a response published Thursday however, the government said it “disagreed.”

It wrote that “departments and their accounting officers hold financial responsibility and accountability for the delivery of their share of ODA,” avoiding any blurring or overlap of responsibility between departments. It added that DFID is already represented on the boards and committees that oversee cross-government ODA programs.

A proposal that all ODA should be first funneled through DFID and then allocated to other departments to increase its oversight was also rejected.

Bond, an umbrella group of U.K. aid organizations, told Devex in a statement: “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 … The IDC’s recommendations provided DFID with the perfect opportunity to hold other government departments to account for their spending of U.K. aid.”

Citing criticisms of the cross-government strategy “for a lack of transparency and allowing mission creep by shifting the focus of U.K. aid away from alleviating poverty,” the group added that any department spending aid 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.”

Roughly 18 percent of ODA was spent by departments other than DFID in 2017, primarily the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund; and the Home Office. While DFID has a strong reputation for transparency and efficacy in aid spending, some experts are concerned that other departments and funds are not focused on a poverty-reduction mandate, and achieve varying degrees of transparency.

Cross-government funds came under scrutiny in the IDC report. The funds — including the CSSF and Prosperity Fund — mix ODA with non-ODA resources, and have been criticized for blurring the lines between aid and other spending. Aid groups have criticized the CSSF in particular for publishing limited information, with some redacted on the grounds of security and confidentiality — a justification that the U.K.’s aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, said was sometimes “over-used.”

The IDC report stresses that: “Without transparency it is impossible to assess the effectiveness of the cross-government funds and consider whether they are creating the benefits espoused by the government. CSSF programmes must publish program information as a matter of course unless a clear national security reason is cited for redaction.”

In response, the government said that departments delivering CSSF programs already provide a range of information and data, but that “due to the highly sensitive nature of some of the CSSF’s work it is not possible to publish details of all program spend,” which is decided “following thorough consideration.” It rejected a call for ICAI to be handed responsibility for scrutinizing blended ODA and non-ODA programs, and for the continuation of CSSF in its current form to be reviewed.

Bond again criticized the response, saying that: “Both the CSSF and Prosperity Fund have been criticized for lagging behind DFID's high standards, using confidentiality as an excuse for a lack of transparency and for poorly targeting the needs of the poor — this cannot be allowed to continue.”

Commenting on the government’s full response, Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for international development, added that “today’s inadequate government response ... shows they cannot be trusted with the country’s aid budget. Their refusal to accept a number of important recommendations from the IDC, which would have ensured aid spending focused on its core purpose of poverty reduction, only proves how little concern they have for eradicating global poverty.”

But the government insisted that the “collective effort” of the cross-government aid strategy “allows our ODA programs to deliver both strong development impact and value for money to the U.K. taxpayer. The government is committed to addressing criticisms of our aid spend to ensure this does not undermine the achievements of U.K. aid thus far.”

About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Deputy News Editor. Based in London, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on Europe & Africa. She has previously worked as a writer, researcher and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.