LONDON — The United Kingdom’s cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has taken big steps toward addressing major concerns about its transparency, accountability, and monitoring and evaluation processes according to one of its harshest critics, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
The positive review comes as the fund’s latest annual report shows it grew by £80 million ($100 million) last year, a trend that is set to continue — especially if Boris Johnson is confirmed as the next prime minister, one analyst predicts.
"Too many programs showed signs of basic design errors, with poor delivery and a lack of quality control," according to an ICAI review last year.
The £1.26 billion fund — which pools aid and non-aid money and works across 13 government departments to deliver on both British national security and U.K. aid objectives in fragile and conflict-affected countries — has been dogged by controversy since it launched in 2015 as part of the government’s “fusion doctrine” to bring expertise from across government to national security issues.
Despite its aim of bringing joined-up thinking and flexible funding to complex work, it has been the subject of three highly critical official reviews, most recently by ICAI, the U.K.’s aid watchdog, which reports directly to Parliament.
ICAI raised major concerns about the fund’s aid effectiveness, transparency, accountability, monitoring, and evaluation capabilities, and its ability to do no harm, giving CSSF a rare amber/red performance rating.
However, on Thursday, ICAI published a follow-up report, which said CSSF was addressing its concerns, including by setting up a new global monitoring, evaluation, and learning strategy, and publishing program and annual reports for the bulk of its work, although with some “sensitive” information still redacted.
CSSF has also rolled out a “conflict sensitivity marker” to help ensure its projects do not inadvertently cause harm.
CSSF’s efforts have “likely … already led to more conflict-sensitive programming with clearer and more testable intermediate outcomes.” Monitoring has become more rigorous, and learning improved, the paper concludes. Outgoing ICAI Commissioner Richard Gledhill said the fund had made “real progress.”
However, CSSF is still making what ICAI described as “unsubstantiated results claims” in some cases and is also only evaluating major programs. ICAI said it hopes CSSF will move to evaluate a sample of smaller projects as well.
Aid experts said they welcomed CSSF’s efforts to improve but that there is still work to be done.
“Whilst we welcome an increased focus on reporting, the government can do more to show greater transparency about where and how the CSSF spends ODA [official development assistance], as well as provide further evidence of how the differing objectives, such as prioritising of U.K. national security objectives whilst also targeting the poorest and most marginalised people, are being met through programme delivery,” Claire Godfrey, head of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, the network of U.K. NGOs, wrote in an email to Devex.
CSSF’s annual report, also published Thursday, shows that having grown by £80 million last year, it included £609 million of ODA, up from £555 million in 2017-18.
CSSF’s budget looks set to rise again next year to £1.3 billion, with £603 million coming from ODA, according to figures announced in Parliament.
In addition, if Johnson becomes the next prime minister — a decision due to be announced next week following a ballot of Conservative Party members — he could push more aid through other government departments, especially the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, according to Ed Laws, senior research officer at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank.
“It’s quite possible that the FCO will look to take a bigger chunk of the aid budget in future, and one way of doing that is by implementing projects through CSSF,” Laws said.
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CSSF’s annual report also states that the fund has succeeded in making it easier for NGOs and small businesses to bid for funding — something groups had complained about in the past — through its new procurement framework. The framework launched last year and will cover approximately £120 million per year of CSSF’s spend. The number of NGOs in the framework has nearly doubled, the report said.
As in previous years, the majority of CSSF’s budget — 62% last year — was spent by FCO, followed by the Ministry of Defense (19%), and the Department for International Development (10%).
Last year, the top recipient countries of CSSF ODA funds were Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, with a large chunk spent on United Nations peacekeeping.
Update, July 19: This story was amended to clarify that CSSF grew by £80 million last year.