DFID will defend its budget, top UK civil servant tells MPs

Matthew Rycroft, DFID permanent secretary. Photo by: Manuel Elias / United Nations

LONDON — The top civil servant in the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has said he will fight to prevent its share of the aid budget being further diluted, as government pursues a plan to redirect aid to other departments.

“We need to make sure that there is proper coherence as well as transparency and value for money.”

— Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary, DFID

DFID Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft told members of the International Development Committee on Wednesday that he was keen to ensure his department spends at least 75 percent of the U.K.’s official development assistance and that he will make a “confident proposition” on this to Treasury officials as part of the DFID spending review due to kick off next year.

Currently, DFID only spends 72 percent of the U.K. ODA budget and its portion has been steadily declining in recent years, especially in response to the 2015 cross-government aid strategy, which calls for up to 30 percent of aid to be administered by other government departments by 2020.

This has raised alarm among aid experts who argue that DFID is the best-placed department to spend ODA effectively in line with poverty reduction goals, and that it has a better transparency and accountability record.

In response to a question from IDC chair and Labour politician Stephen Twigg about whether DFID was likely to see its share of ODA fall even further in the future, Rycroft said:

“We feel as though it should not fall any further; indeed it should go up a bit just to make sure that we really can … ensure the 0.7 percent [aid spending target] will be hit each year …. Anything under 75 percent is quite difficult to get to that certainty,” he said.

“We will obviously live with whatever the spending round is ... but we will go into that spending round with a confident proposition,” he added.

His comments were welcomed by civil society groups unhappy with aid increasingly being spent through other departments — mainly the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; and the Home Office — and through cross-departmental funds such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

“It is reassuring to hear DFID’s permanent secretary emphasizing that the share of ODA spent by other government departments should not increase any further, and, if anything, the amount invested by DFID should increase. This is a pressing issue in light of the upcoming spending review,” Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, the U.K.'s network of international development NGOs, told Devex.

Cross-government funds including CSSF and the Prosperity Fund, as well as non-DFID aid spending departments, have come in for sharp criticism from many quarters, including for a perceived lack of transparency and lack of poverty focus in their work. “No further money should go to other government departments until they meet the same level of accountability, scrutiny and transparency as DFID,” Godfrey added.

Rycroft told MPs he supports the cross-government aid strategy in principle, but acknowledged there were grounds for concern.

“This department [DFID] supports the idea that there are other departments and other pooled funds which have a valuable role to play, in addition to this department, in spending the U.K.’s ODA,” he said. However, as the portion of ODA spent by other departments and mechanisms increases, “we need to make sure that there is proper coherence as well as transparency and value for money.”

IDC member and Labour politician Lloyd Russell-Moyle spoke more strongly against cross-government aid spending. “DFID’s budget will have dropped by 10 percent between 2013 and 2020 and dubious cross-departmental funds will pick up the slack ... It is not, as the government claims, about value for money,” he said, “but about bulking up the budgets of programs which, while they may benefit the interests of the [Foreign Office] or the [Ministry of Defence], are demonstrably poor at reducing poverty. Meanwhile, DFID is being forced to cut projects which actually do this.”

Rycroft said his department should play a “stronger role” in the “governance arrangements” for non-DFID departments spending ODA, such as sharing best practices and “making sure the way we spend aid can be replicated in other departments.” However, he was clear that DFID is not responsible for ODA spent by other departments.

Aid minister does not need signoff on ODA spending, says UK government

In its response to a parliamentary inquiry into ODA administration, the U.K. government rejected several recommendations for strengthening the DFID's oversight of ODA, as ever-more is spent by other parts of government.

A report published by IDC in June recommended that the U.K. secretary of state for international development have ultimate responsibility for oversight of ODA spending, and that DFID be given final sign-off on all disbursed ODA. In September, DFID published an official response saying it “disagreed” with the recommendation.

Bond’s Godfrey said the network “would welcome a stronger role for DFID in the delivery of ODA spent by other government departments.”

Update, Nov. 29: This story was updated to include additional comments.

About the author

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    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.