Anne-Marie Trevelyan seeks to claw back oversight of ODA

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: REUTERS / Simon Dawson

LONDON — Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the U.K.’s secretary of state for international development, is planning to seek more oversight of how the government spends its aid money.

The U.K. has pursued a policy of spending aid across government departments since 2015, and the issue of oversight under that policy has been a matter of debate. Independent reviews have found that many government departments lack the transparency, value for money, and aid-spending effectiveness demonstrated by the Department for International Development, which Trevelyan leads.

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Her comments, made in a hearing of the International Development Committee on Tuesday, were welcomed by aid campaigners, who are frequently wary of the cross-government strategy.

Trevelyan defended the strategy at the hearing, but when asked if U.K. aid programs outside of DFID were adequately targeted toward poverty reduction, she said it was a “profoundly important question and one ... we’ve been distracted from.”

“I think poverty reduction is achieved in lots of different ways, and the different funds and expertise that other government departments bring are part of that mosaic,” Trevelyan said.

“The British public trusts the government to ensure aid goes to the most vulnerable people, particularly during these times of crisis.”

— Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research, Bond

She continued: “One of the things I’m looking to bring back into regular activity — which officials do all the time but ministers haven’t since 2018 — is a sort of regular review of what everyone’s doing with their ODA [official development assistance] and thinking, questioning if we’ve got a strategic and effective output across the board, as we want to have as [government].”

In 2018, IDC recommended that the secretary of state for international development have ultimate oversight of the U.K.’s ODA spending, but the government rejected the proposal at the time.

“Different departments bring their expertise, always with a DFID, ODA hat sitting next to them,” Trevelyan said. “But I think we could benefit from a more ministerial-led oversight of that, which is something I hope to do in the months ahead.”

Responding to her comments, Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond, a U.K. network of nongovernmental organizations in the aid sector, said the prospect of DFID having more ministerial oversight of other government departments’ aid spending is “encouraging.”

“According to independent assessment by ICAI [the Independent Commission for Aid Impact] and the Aid Transparency Index, DFID is more effective and transparent at administrating U.K. aid than other government departments and cross-department funds, so their guidance and oversight will be welcome,” he said.

“The British public trusts the government to ensure aid goes to the most vulnerable people, particularly during these times of crisis,” he added.

Tuesday’s hearing covered a wide range of topics, including the sharing of junior ministers between DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the U.K.’s aid-spending rules, and the government’s continued commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid.

Trevelyan said she was in favor of maintaining DFID’s independence, despite calls from some in her party to merge it with FCO.

“What we can deliver or try to achieve to the reductions in global poverty is well served by having both a foreign secretary and a DFID secretary,” she said. “I would take some persuading [to put myself out of a job], but machinery of government is a movable feast. I think the reality of having those two voices and a PM [prime minister] who is global-facing is a really powerful message to the rest of the world.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.