DFID must remain independent, say watchdog politicians

Photo by: Anna Dubuis / DFID / CC BY

LONDON — The group of politicians tasked with scrutinizing U.K. aid has called for the Department for International Development to remain an independent body with Cabinet-level leadership.

Exclusive: DFID pauses 'some new decisions' as aid budget expected to fall

“All government departments are working through how their plans will need to change" in light of an expected recession, DFID wrote in a document to suppliers. "DFID is no exception."

The recommendations were made by the cross-party International Development Committee, which published an interim report Tuesday on its wide-ranging inquiry into the effectiveness of U.K. aid.

Further reporting from the committee is due before Parliament’s summer recess, when IDC’s findings will be submitted to the U.K. government’s Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review. The review is currently paused because of the coronavirus pandemic but could have major implications for U.K. aid as DFID battles to hold on to its seat in the Cabinet.

“We have heard glowing reviews of DFID’s work helping the world’s poorest, and it is clear that it stands head and shoulders above other ODA-spending departments,” said IDC chair Sarah Champion in a statement, referring to official development assistance.

“We urge Ministers to recognise DFID’s world-leading reputation, commit to its continuation as a standalone department and to get a grip on oversight for Government ODA,” she added.

DFID controls the lion’s share of the U.K.’s ODA budget and is led by the secretary of state for international development — a post currently held by Anne-Marie Trevelyan — who sits in the Cabinet alongside the government’s most senior politicians.

However, there are fears that the upcoming integrated review could see DFID merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office — a move long backed by some Conservative Party politicians, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“There are signs that key decisions regarding the future of DFID have already been made,” according to the IDC report. It cited the merging of junior ministerial roles across DFID and FCO, as well as the move for international DFID staff to report to FCO officials.

But following its inquiry, which included hearing evidence from 19 witnesses and reviewing 69 written submissions on the effectiveness of U.K. aid, IDC appeared clear in its opposition to changing DFID’s structure.

“Any reforms to current government systems and structures would potentially impact the fundamentals of what UK aid is spent on, who spends it most effectively, and ultimately undermine our reputation and influence overseas as a ‘development superpower,’” the report stated.

It continued: “In a time of COVID-19, we need stability and should seek to avoid a potentially disruptive and costly machinery of government reorganisation that will impact on the effectiveness of UK aid. This Committee advocates strongly for the retention of the current standalone Ministry of State model for international development, with a Cabinet level Minister.”

An evidence-based case for any significant changes proposed to U.K. aid systems and structures should be presented to Parliament, the report added.

It was also critical of the cross-government ODA strategy — under which a quarter of the aid budget is now spent outside DFID — and said this made the management and oversight of aid more difficult. IDC said there was a “significant risk” that some government departments would “rebadge day-to-day spending as aid and push the boundaries of what counts as aid,” calling for increased oversight and accountability.

“Any reforms to current government systems and structures would potentially … undermine our reputation and influence overseas.”

— An International Development Committee report on U.K. aid

Champion said: “We are not convinced that all ODA programmes administered outside of DFID are properly targeted towards poverty reduction or the most vulnerable. Given the enormity of the UK’s aid budget, it is particularly shocking that transparency remains a huge problem that Government departments are failing to grapple.”

Civil society groups welcomed the report’s recommendation. “Yet again, when the UK’s approach to international development is properly scrutinised, the answer could not be less equivocal. This report is clear that DFID is one of the Government’s strongest assets if it is serious about building a truly Global Britain over the next decade,” said Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director for The ONE Campaign, in a statement.

“We fully support the IDC's call for stronger transparency, accountability, and DFID oversight of U.K. aid to ensure it meets its primary purpose of contributing to poverty reduction and sustainable development,” said Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, the network for U.K. aid nongovernmental organizations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated the importance of DFID and the secretary of state for international development, as well as the valuable role the department plays in championing [the goal of] maintaining the U.K.'s international reputation and influence,” she added.

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.