A Department for International Development worker stands in front of a truck loaded with aid at a U.K. aid Disaster Response Center at Kemble Airport, southern England. Photo by: REUTERS / Stefan Wermuth

LONDON — Aid groups have welcomed the news that the U.K. Department for International Development increased its share of the aid budget for the first time in five years in 2018, as new figures were released Thursday — however, some cautioned that all is not what it seems.

The government’s provisional U.K. aid statistics revealed that DFID spent 75 percent of U.K. official development assistance last year, up from 72 percent in 2017. This represents an increase of 7.8 percent, or £792 million ($1.03 billion).

“We should be spending ODA in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and to eradicate poverty, not to find ways of spending it through nonspecialist departments.”

— Jesse Griffiths, head of development strategy and finance, Overseas Development Institute

Until this year, DFID’s share of the aid budget has fallen steadily since 2014, after the government committed to spending up to 30 percent of aid through other departments by 2020.

NGOs have been lobbying against the policy, arguing that DFID is best placed to spend aid effectively and transparently.

“It's good to see that the worrying previous trend of U.K. ODA being spent outside DFID is now being reversed,” Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, the network of U.K. NGOs, told Devex, adding that “DFID remains the most transparent and poverty-focused of government departments spending aid.”

However, there are questions over the significance of the rise since DFID’s windfall was largely thanks to an accounting quirk which meant contributions to the International Monetary Fund fell by £700 million in 2018.

Furthermore, the proportion of ODA spent by other government departments also increased during the year, from 18 percent to 20 percent.

Jesse Griffiths, head of development strategy and finance at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, told Devex the figures appeared to show that the budget was being “mined” by government departments looking for ways to recategorize their spending as aid.

“We should be spending ODA in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and to eradicate poverty, not to find ways of spending it through nonspecialist departments, which leads to lower quality expenditure,” he said.

However, Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the One Campaign, said it was still significant that the pot of money not spent through IMF was given back to DFID. “That money could well have gone to other government departments, and we would have had concerns had it done so,” she told Devex.

The ODA budget overall rose by £487 million, reaching £14.5 billion in 2018.

The statistics show that the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy had the highest non-DFID share of aid, spending 5.8 percent of ODA, an 11 percent increase from 2017.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s share of the aid budget remained relatively flat at 4.4 percent, which some aid experts saw as a positive sign given the speculation in recent months over a possible merger between FCO and DFID, and FCO’s poor transparency record.

The Department of Health and Social Care spent £195 million of ODA, almost twice as much as the previous year. Most of the funding went to developing vaccines for epidemic diseases affecting low- and middle-income countries, according to the report.

The Cabinet Office’s share of ODA went up significantly from £3 million to £21 million during 2018 but the report does not say why.

Aid experts will be watching for the final ODA statistics, due to be released in November, which should include more detail.

“Caution should be applied until we see the full breakdown at the end of 2019, when we will get a clearer picture of where DFID's increased allocation is going,” Godfrey said.

A DFID spokesperson said in a statement that “reducing poverty, hunger, and providing clean water and sanitation is at the heart of what U.K. aid does, but it is also tackling disease, terrorism, and conflict, and creating a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world for us all.”

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.