More expert implementers needed to improve DfID's anti-corruption efforts

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening (right) speaks with members of the British military building the Ebola treatment center in Kerry Town in Sierra Leone. The British aid agency was given the second-worst possible scoring by ICAI for the overall effectiveness of its anti-corruption efforts. Photo by: Staff Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC / MOD / DfID / CC BY

The U.K. Department for International Development needs to make more and better use of on-the-ground implementers, contractors and expert advisers to help improve its poor record at combating corruption that plagues the lives of the world’s poorest people, according to a commissioner at the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

ICAI unveiled this week a new report that slammed the aid agency for weak understanding of corruption and lack of a systematic approach to tackling it.

The report, which focused on Nigeria and Nepal and drew heavily from surveys of DfID beneficiaries, highlighted how poor people suffer disproportionately from the effects of often endemic corruption, being forced to pay bribes for access to everything from health care to education and employment. ICAI slapped an amber-red alert — its second-worst possible scoring — on the overall effectiveness of the U.K. aid agency’s anti-corruption efforts, and DfID even scored a red alert (the worst possible score) on “learning” about anti-corruption.

DfID has “little understanding of what is working with respect to its anti-corruption activities,” does not comprehend “which of its activities are addressing corruption or how they will make a difference” and “has not sought sufficient evidence to understand whether its anti-corruption activities are having an impact on the poor.” Another key problem, ICAI pointed out in the report, is that the department has “missed opportunities to use regional anti-corruption advisers to drive the corruption agenda.”

“There is absolutely a role for experts in this space … but how much DfID are actually looking around trying to find that and use it is an area we would question,” Mark Foster, a commissioner at ICAI, told Devex.

And while there is evidence of the agency tapping on-the-ground expertise — for example to support long-term community projects in Nepal — “are they really being given the best support from DfID to do the job they need to do?” he asked.

ICAI suggested DfID create an internal “center of excellence” explicitly to focus on anti-corruption, and gather and publish targeted feedback from the stakeholders of its anti-corruption work — including intended beneficiaries. This would help it “spot check” and correct its existing programs and inform new programming.

“It’s about bringing anti-corruption a little bit more into [DfID’s] systems and organizational structures, such that you’re more likely to have an explicit rather than an implicit focus on the area,” Foster said, adding that currently it’s very hard even to add up the work the department does in this space because it’s not being tagged in the systems.

The report didn't bring only bad news for the agency, however.

DfID earned a respectable green-amber score for the “delivery” of its anti-corruption work, with ICAI praising the department for making good use of flexible program structures. But the politically sensitive nature of corruption, however, can lead country offices to avoid anti-corruption programming and a lack of coordination between DfID and the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Offices has resulted in a “lack of ambition toward tackling corruption,” the report claimed. DfID was also praised for having clear, overarching objectives with regard to anti-corruption and for being “a key participant in global initiatives that attempt to fight corruption.” However, very few activities center on how corruption affects the poor.

Foster noted too that DfID has made some progress in its anti-corruption efforts since a 2011 ICAI report focused more heavily on anti-fraud efforts to protect U.K. taxpayer funds. He's optimistic that the department will take on board the new findings and called on the agency to take an international lead on challenging host governments so they can also tackle the often “top-down” nature of corruption on their own.

DfID is well-placed in the “challenging area” of working with host governments that are “increasingly strong and independent” in terms of their relationship with donors and what donors are able to do on the ground, the lead commissioner said.

“If the donor community believes, as DfID does believe, that capitalism is one of the fundamental enablers for economic development in these countries, then it needs to come together more strongly,” Foster explained. “DfID should take a leadership position on that.”

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  • Helen castell profile

    Helen Castell

    Helen Castell is a London-based financial journalist with nearly 20 years’ experience covering trade, energy and risk for TXF, Shares Magazine, Global Trade Review, Newsbase, Trade Finance Magazine and other Euromoney publications. At Devex, she writes about development banking, private sector engagement and funding trends. She studied English Literature at Sheffield University and International Journalism at London’s City University, and speaks English, Spanish and Japanese.