LONDON — The U.K. Department for International Development appeared to survive the spending review unscathed this week, with the government pledging to increase its budget by 1.5% in real terms for the year 2020-21.
However, some analysts questioned how much of the promised boost will actually be spent by DFID, warning that some of the increase appears to be going to other departments.
Chancellor Sajid Javid’s spending plans, announced Wednesday, cover only one year instead of the usual three due to uncertainties over Brexit. It comes amid concerns about the future of the aid budget and DFID’s independence under aid sceptic Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
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In the plan, the chancellor said the U.K. would continue to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid and also pledged the 1.5% increase to DFID’s resource departmental expenditure limits, or RDEL, budget, from £9.3 billion ($11.4 billion) to £9.6 billion. This includes an 8% increase in its administration budget.
However, a number of aid experts questioned the details of the proposed increase given that the spending review also promises the Foreign & Commonwealth Office an extra £50 million from DFID, as well as more ODA for other departments and cross-government funds.
“It appears that at least some of DFID’s 1.5% increase will be transferred to other departments, making the actual increase unclear,” Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in Europe, told Devex.
Experts agreed that while more detail is needed, the plan appears to show an acceleration in the recent trend of spending more ODA through FCO, which has been heavily criticized by aid analysts for its poor track record on transparency and failure to spend ODA effectively in line with poverty eradication goals.
The government did not provide more clarity when asked by Devex but said a full breakdown of the numbers would be released in due course.
According to the spending review, the extra £50 million that FCO is set to receive from DFID is “to support the UK’s existing foreign policy objectives and commitments, while expanding the FCO’s ability to deliver the government’s Global Britain agenda.”
Some experts noted that the tone of the Treasury document emphasizes the aid in the national interest agenda over poverty eradication. The ODA section opens with a reminder that “ODA needs to be in the country’s national interest.”
Toni Pearce, head of advocacy at Oxfam GB, said: “We welcome the government's continued commitment to provide 0.7% of national income as aid [but] we are … concerned about significant levels of aid being transferred to the Foreign Office from [DFID], given that DFID is one of the most transparent aid providers in the world and the FCO is amongst the least transparent.”
Mitchell also questioned the emphasis on spending aid to further the Global Britain agenda, saying, “this doesn’t sound consistent with the letter or the spirit of ODA’s main objective.”
Under the plan, the Home Office will also receive £65 million of ODA to support refugees in the U.K. Although this is allowed by the international aid rules, the spending of ODA within donor countries to support refugees has been controversial.
Meanwhile, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will receive £87 million of ODA to help low-income countries reduce their carbon emissions. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will get an additional £30 million from the DFID budget for biodiversity projects.
Two controversial cross-government funds, which spend a mixture of ODA and nonODA money, will also receive more aid funding. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund will get an extra £50 million of ODA in 2020-21, which represents an 8% increase on last year’s budget. The Prosperity Fund will receive £15 million more than last year’s budget, representing a 5% boost.
However, in a nod to concerns about the performance of nonDFID departments spending ODA, Javid’s spending round also outlined provisions for DFID to scale-up its “support for cross-government ODA capability building,” by seconding extra staff to work with other ODA-spending departments.
Even so, Claire Godfrey, interim director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, the U.K. network for NGOs, said this wasn’t enough and called for the government to “increase DFID’s oversight of other department’s aid spending to protect the UK’s world class reputation for ensuring that all aid contributes to poverty reduction, meets internationally agreed rules, and remains untied to our strategic and economic interests.”
The spending review also promises to deliver “at least £250 million” to international climate and environment funds, including the Green Climate Fund — Johnson said the U.K. would double its contribution to the fund last month.
Update, Sept. 6: This story was updated after more details were obtained, to clarify that the FCO is set to receive an extra £50 million of funding from DFID.