DFID resources drained by other departments, experts warn

U.K. response in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian. Photo by: Crown copyright

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s aid watchdog has said the Department for International Development needs more staff and resources and a clear mandate to carry out its much-needed job of helping other departments spend U.K. aid effectively.

It comes amid concerns that DFID’s supporting role in the cross-government aid strategy, in addition to no-deal Brexit preparations, are becoming a drain on the department.

The cross-government strategy, published in 2015, sets a target of spending 30% of the aid budget through departments other than DFID by 2020. It also tasked DFID with supporting those other departments in making the transition. Researchers have long been concerned that departments such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are ill-equipped to spend aid effectively and need a high level of support.

However, according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, while DFID has provided major resources to support cross-government aid spending — including loaning out more than 160 of its staff — the department has received no additional funding for this work. Nor has it been given an “official mandate” to carry it out.

“Given the scale of the challenge involved in building aid management capacity across multiple departments, this is a significant omission,” the ICAI review, published Thursday, concludes. It recommends that “DFID should be properly mandated and resourced to support learning on good development practice across aid-spending departments.”

The report, which covers aid spending through 18 government departments since 2015, found that DFID is not the only one in need of extra help. The Treasury has demanded that ODA-spending departments meet “international best practice” in how they spend aid — but no extra resources were provided to support this work, and no detailed guidance was made available until 2018.

“There was no overall plan for how these capacities would be developed, and no structured process to help new aid-spending departments build the necessary systems and processes. Nor were any additional resources provided to support the learning process. We find this to be a striking omission,” the report states.

Jesse Griffiths, head of development strategy and finance at the Overseas Development Institute, said this lack of planning puts U.K. aid quality at risk.

“The report reveals the high levels of risk that were taken with the quality of U.K. aid. Aid money was pushed through non-specialist government departments before adequate expertise or systems were put in place, while at the same time putting extra strain on DFID, who had to devote large staff resources to supporting them,” he told Devex.

A freedom of information request revealed that, as of Jan. 31, 4.7% of DFID staff were working in other departments. That number is believed to have risen since DFID has lost additional staff to the work of supporting no-deal Brexit preparations across government. In April, DFID said that 101 staff had been deployed for this purpose.

“It’s really important for DFID’s expert staff to support other government departments to ensure ODA is spent in line with the UK’s development commitments … but not to the detriment of DFID’s own impact in an already overstretched DFID, which ICAI’s report flags as a real risk,” said Claire Godfrey, interim director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, the U.K. network of development NGOs.

Last week, the U.K. government announced plans to appoint “additional DFID staff to assist other departments spending ODA” in its 2020-21 spending review, although no specific numbers were provided.

ICAI Chief Commissioner Tamsyn Barton welcomed the promised staffing boost but said there was still a long way to go.

"Although there can be benefits to involving more departments in international development — such as the specialist knowledge they bring on subjects like health or the environment — we had warned in previous reviews that there is a significant learning curve for those that are new to spending aid, and it can take years for capability to develop,” she said in a press release.

Last year, approximately a quarter of the £14.5 billion ($19 billion) aid budget was spent by other departments, up from 14% in 2014, according to the review. The trend has sparked concern within the aid community, with representatives maintaining that DFID is best placed to spend ODA effectively, transparently, and in line with poverty eradication goals.

The ICAI review found that most departments have made progress in improving their aid management capabilities, but said that more needs to be done to integrate learning across other departments and into real-time decision-making. It highlighted the fact that only a few departments are meeting the “best practice” threshold on international transparency standards, despite this being a condition of the 2015 aid strategy.

"Important progress is being made,” Barton said, but “departments can do more to ensure the lessons they're continually learning are shared and acted upon in a timely, integrated and transparent way.”

A DFID spokesperson said: "We are investing 0.7% of GDP in international development by drawing on skills and expertise from across government and we continue to share best practice across departments so that we deliver the best results for the world’s poorest."

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.