LONDON — United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel has laid out her department’s efforts to improve the transparency and effectiveness of controversial cross-government aid spending in a letter obtained by Devex.
However, in the letter written to Shadow Secretary of State Kate Osamor, Patel denies holding responsibility as head of the Department for International Development for “how other government departments spend ODA,” which sector observers say points to a lack of clarity around the strategy's governance.
Newly tasked with spending more U.K. official development assistance, non-Department for International Development government departments are struggling to do so effectively and coherently, according to a new report from the National Audit Office.
Under its cross-government strategy, the U.K. government is working toward spending 30 percent of official development assistance through departments other than DFID — such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence — by 2020. However, the strategy has come under fire following the recent suspension and review of cross-government funds managed by the National Security Council and a critical report of the strategy by the National Audit Office. The report also outlined confusion over who is leading cross-government aid spending efforts.
The letter, dated August 16, is a response to a list of concerns set out by Osamor, the Labour Party’s shadow secretary for international development, asking for clarification about the direction of the strategy and Patel’s role in improving aid transparency across government. Osamor also asks for details about Patel’s intent to change the rules for ODA spending to allow for more security and counterterrorism-related spending.
“As you know DFID supports other departments in delivering and quality-assuring their ODA spend,” Patel writes in the letter to Osamor. “However, it is important to remember that individual government departments have direct responsibility for their share of the development budget and are accountable to Parliament and UK taxpayers for how they spend ODA.”
“DFID cannot direct how ODA is spent across other Government Departments,” she writes.
Last month, Alison Evans -- head of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the Parliament-appointed body responsible for scrutinizing aid effectiveness -- was asked during a panel discussion chaired by Devex who in government is tasked with ensuring all aid-related spending by non-DFID departments is ODA-eligible. Evans replied: “On the ODA kind of definition stuff, like I say that really isn’t something we will comment on, but the kind of, the responsibility ultimately resides with the secretary of state for international development to keep an eye on it, and I think it’s well worth the pressure being continued to be on her to make sure that is being done well,” she said.
At the same time, Evans commended DFID and other government departments for their efforts so far in the strategy. There is “no question that at a working level there’s a lot going on,” she said, adding that it’s clear that government departments are in the process of “filling in a lot of the gaps.”
Addressing concerns about how ODA is being spent by other departments, Patel wrote in her letter to Osamor that DFID is providing them with support “to instil best practice on ODA reporting, value for money and accountability, including advice, workshops and tailored training to other government departments as well as support to build project management capability.”
“DFID has delivered tailored support to government departments to meet their transparency commitments,” she added.
Patel also pointed out in her letter that the government “has taken steps to develop cross-government working on ODA, including through establishing a cross-Whitehall Senior Officials ODA Group which meets regularly and reports to ministers,” she said.
However, in an email to Devex, Osamor said that the committee is for “civil servants only” and fails to satisfy complaints by the NAO that no single minister is overseeing the strategy.
In response to Osamor’s concerns about the recent suspension of the new Empowerment Fund, and the launch of a “capability review” into the cross-government Prosperity Fund and the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund — together worth close to 2 billion pounds in U.K. aid per year — Patel also pointed to the review’s emphasis on “streamlining and simplifying governance and improving accountability” of the funds.
The British government has pledged to change the rules around official development assistance yet again — but the head of the Development Assistance Committee told Devex it's not going to happen.
The letter also addresses Patel’s intent to push for changes to the rules around ODA spending at the next high-level meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee in October. The Conservative Party’s election manifesto pledged to soften the rules around using aid for security and counterterrorism-related spending, and Patel has said she will break with the DAC if she can’t achieve consensus for the changes.
In the letter, Patel reiterates her plan to seek further reform to the ODA rules at the meeting in October, writing that after achieving previous reforms in 2016, “our international partners agreed with us then that we should continue to review the rules so that they reflect and get ahead of the complex challenges surrounding poverty.”
While the U.K. spearheaded reforms to the DAC rules in 2016, allowing for greater aid spending on security costs in fragile contexts, the new head of the DAC, Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, told Devex in February that proposals for further reform will see strong opposition from other DAC members.
In an email to Devex, Osamor said Patel’s written response to her concerns “is long, but somehow short on any specifics, timelines, or commitments.” She seems to indicate an intention “to plough on with spending ever more of our aid outside of DFID, no matter the consequences,” she said.
Update, August 22: This story was updated to clarify remarks made by Alison Evans