Amid budget cuts, pressure on UK aid to increase oversight

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Secretary of State George Osborne. Photo by: altogetherfool / CC BY-SA

The United Kingdom’s aid budget may be sealed by law at 0.7 percent of gross national income, but the governing Conservative Party is looking beyond the country’s Department for International Development to make efficiency savings wherever aid goals aren’t being met.

Chancellor George Osborne told reporters last week that he intends to examine the increasing amount of aid coming out of departments other than DfID — including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ministries of defense and education — to make sure U.K. aid, as he put it, is “really saving lives.”

In the midst of a governmentwide hiring freeze and stinging cuts to the domestic budget, concerns are mounting that DfID and other agencies could buckle under the pressure to administer the comparably hefty 0.7 percent allotted to foreign aid. Aid groups and DfID officials are largely supportive of Osborne’s call for increased scrutiny, hoping the measures will bridge the gap in oversight between DfID and other aid-administering departments, over which DfID has no jurisdiction.

“All U.K. aid, regardless of the government department that spends it, must be focused on poverty reduction,” Joanna Rea, head of public affairs at the Overseas Development Institute, a U.K.-based think tank, told Devex.

“A clear cross-Whitehall approach to international development would ensure that DfID can maintain oversight of aid spending in all government departments.”  

Osborne’s call for greater oversight comes as conservative media outlets across the U.K. take aim at aid, accusing the government of rushing money out the door to multilaterals like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis in order to reach the 0.7 percent goal. And there are ongoing allegations of questionable spending too, in particular directed at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO has come under fire repeatedly in the past three years, notably for allegedly funding the construction of a water park in Morocco and hosting theater workshops in Ecuador.

“We welcome this review into overseas aid which builds on DfID’s relentless drive for value for money,” a DfID spokesperson wrote in an email to Devex.

“Whether through increasing ministerial oversight, reducing consultancy costs or inviting the private sector to compete for better results, we’re ensuring every pound is being spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

The last three years have seen an annual 1-2 percent increase in aid flows from non-DfID departments, Rea and others told Devex, most recently with aid funds moved into capital spending.

At the same time, sources at Publish What You Fund added that there is disputing evidence of whether aid has become more fragmented across departments and to what degree, but acknowledged it is a valid concern in the development community. DfID oversees around $17 billion annually, while the FCO controls around $543 million.

“The U.K. has reached its aid target, which is a real achievement, but we need to refocus now on improving the effectiveness of U.K. aid spending,” Amy Dodd, director of the U.K. Aid Network told Devex.

“This means a hard look at how aid-spending departments perform, ensuring that they are held to the same high development standards as DfID and improving the coherence of development work across government.”

The problem of coordinating oversight of all aid spending is a recurring concern for members of the U.K. aid community, many of whom hope DfID will take the wheel in administering aid across the government.

Alison Evans, chief at the Independent Commission for Aid Impact alluded early this month to a strong potential for “turf wars” between departments over aid spending. “If you’ve got a department that is essentially sitting on a ringfenced budget of that nature that’s been written into law, they absolutely have to take the leadership on this,” she said, speaking to the Guardian.

“Without a very clear strategic vision for how official development assistance needs to be delivered in the U.K., there’s going to be potential possibly for some loss of turf,” she said.

Justine Greening, the U.K.’s secretary of state for development expressed frustration in June over the FCO’s choice of projects, which subsequently led Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to initiate an investigation into his department’s aid spending.

Despite broad consensus around the issue of aid effectiveness, Osborne’s pledge to ensure U.K. aid is “saving lives” has some in the global development community worried about how the government will assess its aid efforts.

“There are some contexts in which it is easier to demonstrate ‘saving lives’ than in others, but putting figures to this can be tricky,” Farah Nazeer, director of policy and campaigns at Bond — a U.K. membership body for nongovernmental organizations — told Devex.

“It is easier to show the ‘improvement in people’s lives’ which is what most aid spending does,” Nazeer said. “For more entrenched issues such as influencing a government policy or international climate negotiations to bring about institutional change, then this becomes more challenging.”

Officials from several U.K.-based development organizations told Devex that while the measures posed little to no immediate threat to their own budgets, there is concern that the cost-cutting ethos could spill over into an upcoming review of the government’s partnerships with CSOs.

Worries that increased government pressure on aid efficiency could miss the nuances of aid effectiveness come just as Greening announces the terms for the forthcoming Civil Society Partnership Review, a DfID-led assessment of CSOs engaged with the U.K. on implementing foreign aid projects.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former 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.