Aid watchdog calls for 'urgent steps' to fix CSSF

Two Syrian women wait to collect a prescription at a health clinic in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Photo by: Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

LONDON — The independent watchdog for the United Kingdom’s aid spending has issued a scathing critique of the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, a 1.2 billion British pound ($1.7 billion) fund hosted by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

The review, published Thursday, examined CSSF programs in six countries, and concluded that the fund’s results management was “below standards expected for aid programs, with basic information on achievements frequently missing or incomplete,” according to a press release.

Webinar: How to work with the UK's Conflict, Stability and Security Fund

Ahead of the deadline for organizations to register their interest for the U.K.'s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, Devex spoke with the head of CSSF procurement about the fund's purpose, priorities, and portfolio, and questions about the process.

The watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, also said it was impossible to be sure projects were achieving their intended results, delivering value for money, or even avoiding unintended harm to beneficiaries.

Around 41 percent of the CSSF’s 1.2 billion pound budget comprises official development assistance, focused on fragile and conflict-affected countries.

“For a fund of its size this is worrying, and raises important concerns about its potential impact and value for money,” Richard Gledhill, former head of climate at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and ICAI commissioner, said in a statement.

“We expect the government to take urgent steps to tackle the weaknesses identified, to ensure it delivers for people affected by conflict, and for U.K. taxpayers.”

While the report praised the CSSF’s oversight of cross-government aid spending — a longstanding concern among the U.K. aid community — and said CSSF staff show a “good understanding” of ODA eligibility, the report claims the fund is weaker at ensuring that “the totality of its aid programming is greater than the sum of its parts” and at working toward the end goal of sustainable peace and stability.

Poor results management and incomplete information meant results were “difficult to measure.” Overall progress tended to be slow and uneven, with “problematic” attribution of results to external interventions, according to the report.

“The CSSF has proved it can be flexible and responsive to the U.K.’s national security priorities,” Gledhill said. “But while we saw some good work, too many programs showed signs of basic design errors, with poor delivery, and a lack of quality control.”

The CSSF has faced criticism in the past, and was placed under review last year alongside two other cross-government funds that are hosted by the FCO but report to the National Security Council.

Responding to the report, an FCO spokesperson told Devex: “Following the National Security Capability Review, the CSSF will move to a new Joint Funds Unit, which will allow for greater strategic and ministerial oversight.”

“As the CSSF grows, we will continue to act on lessons learned, including considering the findings of this report.”

The ICAI report claims CSSF is aware of many of its shortcomings, but that measures to address them are “at an early stage,” with a lack of meaningful results data making it difficult to determine whether programs could be causing unintended harm.

At the same time, ICAI applauded CSSF’s work on strategic communications — pointing to programs in the Sahel and the Caucasus — for producing strong guidance about what works in a complex area. CSSF’s expertise on conflict sensitivity also scored well. But across the board, ICAI found that weak theories of change had resulted in weak monitoring and evaluation arrangements, with some evaluations limited to post-training satisfaction surveys.

The government spokesperson emphasized that “the report highlights a number of successes from CSSF’s programs, including supporting the peace process in Colombia and encouraging women in Pakistan to register to vote. The report also praises the CSSF’s conflict analysis and technical expertise.”

Among programs reviewed, ICAI did not examine the Access to Justice and Community Security program, implemented by Adam Smith International and funded by CSSF alongside the governments of the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Belgium. The program was briefly suspended last year due to allegations by the BBC that a small amount of its funds were reaching terrorists in Syria, but the program was reinstated after investigations found no wrongdoing.

The CSSF reopened for a new round of bidding in early March.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.