DFID holds off from explaining sky-high cost of UK-Africa Investment Summit

Delegates are silhouetted against the stage background at the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit in London. Photo by: Matt Dunham / Pool via Reuters

LONDON — Three months on from the controversial U.K.-Africa Investment Summit, the U.K. government is declining to release details of its £15.5 million ($19 million) budget for the one-day event.

The January summit aimed to make the U.K. “the investment partner of choice for Africa,” according to a government release, and resulted in £6.5 billion worth of commercial deals in areas such as oil and gas, gold mining, airplane sales, and infrastructure construction. In several cases, funding flows went from Africa to U.K. companies, rather than the other way round.

NGOs protest as DFID foots bill for trade-focused UK-Africa Investment Summit

The lack of civil society inclusion in the DFID-sponsored event is "absolutely staggering," advocates say.

The summit prompted controversy because it was funded from the annual budget of the Department for International Development, though experts questioned its development credentials and why no representatives of African civil society had been invited.

The government’s Development Tracker website, or DevTracker, lists the projected budget for the event as £11 million, with another £4.5 million for “technical assistance” to help African countries “identify sector specific commercial opportunities which can be showcased at the Summit … [and] support post-Summit work to further develop UK-Africa investment going forward.”

That is high compared with other recent DFID-funded summits, such as 2018’s Global Disability Summit, which was delivered at a cost of £1.3 million.

Despite the significant cost and the controversy surrounding it, the government has remained tight-lipped about what the money was spent on, saying it will be published “in due course.”

“This secrecy over the development budget is particularly shocking, given the government is always telling us about the importance of transparency in development.”

— Nick Dearden, director, Global Justice Now

The information currently available on DevTracker accounts for only about £1.8 million of spending, mostly awarded to Calder Conferences — the same company that helped organize the Disability Summit — for “Technical & Advisory services.”

Several questions about where the rest of the money went, submitted to the government by politicians such as the Scottish National Party’s Chris Law, the Liberal Democrats’ Wendy Chamberlain, and the Labour Party’s Dan Carden, received the same response: The government confirmed that funding for the summit would be reported as official development assistance but would not provide a breakdown of spending, saying that “the full costing will be available in due course.”

In a later question submitted by the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, the government said the information would be published “as part of the Department for International Development’s annual accounts in July, 2020.”

However, DFID’s annual accounts do not usually include a breakdown of spending on summits and events. DFID did not respond to multiple queries about why it would be included this time.

Freedom of Information requests submitted to DFID by Devex were also rejected on the grounds that the spending breakdown would be included in the annual accounts, with the refusal letter stating that although “the Department for International Development (DFID) holds information relevant to your request … As this information is intended for future publication, it is exempt from disclosure at this time.”

“I think most people will be scratching their heads at how aid money can be used to cement commercial deals on behalf of some of the biggest corporations in the world, including fossil fuel companies,” wrote Nick Dearden, director at Global Justice Now, in an email to Devex.

“The fact that the Government won’t even tell us exactly how this money was spent just adds to the sense that they’re using the development budget to aid big business rather than support developing country governments,” he wrote.

“This secrecy over the development budget is particularly shocking, given the government is always telling us about the importance of transparency in development. If they’re really proud of how they’ve spent this money, the least they can do is be honest about it,” he added.

Preet Kaur Gill, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international development, said: “The public need to know exactly what over £15 million of aid money was spent on during the one-day business summit. The government’s lack of transparency, and refusal to release details, raises serious questions and concerns.

“The UK’s aid budget must be spent on helping the world’s poorest and vulnerable, tackling inequality, and promoting climate justice.”

DFID declined to provide a public comment for this story.

About the authors

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she 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.
  • 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.