Opinion: Building public confidence in aid by putting the poorest first

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel meets a primary school girl in Brama village, which is benefiting from a U.K. aid-funded clean water and sanitation program. Photo by: Tanya Holden / DFID / CC BY-NC

Britain’s aid budget has not been immune from this roller-coaster year in politics.

On the one hand, the U.K. Department for International Development is growing in confidence; since taking office, Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel has championed the accountability of U.K. aid, as well as its transformative impact on the world’s poorest people. Our new prime minister has also frequently cited the 0.7 percent commitment as a key pillar of post-Brexit Britain’s soft power.

On the other hand, the campaign by some newspapers in opposition to our foreign aid budget has continued at pace, with a growing number of headlines decrying the “madness” of Britain’s aid budget.

Scrutiny is a good thing. There is much in Britain’s aid budget that is ripe for a shake up, and the extent to which the secretary of state has grabbed the bull of reform by the horns is admirable. But our aid budget is too important for this increasing polarization.

For the most part, aid champions and aid skeptics alike start from a position of wanting to do the most good for the most people. When I first started my career, this was not the case. I still remember when the argument was between helping or abandoning. Gratefully we’ve come a long way since then and successive governments deserve a lot of credit for helping us reach this shared commitment to helping the world’s poorest people.

It is now time for us to take a more holistic approach: to work together and ensure that Britain’s generosity has the greatest possible impact. Thursday’s release of the Multilateral Aid Review provides us with a starting point.

Re-inventing value for money

Value for money is central to the secretary of state’s reform of the aid budget, and rightly so. Save the Children is value for money obsessed: the better value we deliver, the more children we help. But this is also because we are accountable to our donors, not only for their money but for their trust in us — something I am acutely aware of as we approach our centenary. Save the Children only exists because people believe in what we do and trust in us to deliver, whether they are holding the purse strings of government or are a member of the public. In order to live up to these expectations, we publish an accountability and transparency report on top of our annual report every year.

Value for money exists in many different guises; it is not simply about stretching a budget as thinly as possible. The case of spending in fragile states illustrates this well. DfID’s ambition to spend more money in fragile states is very welcome. But in meeting this ambition, value for money considerations will not be straightforward. A pound spent in South Sudan is riskier than a pound spent in Ghana. Delivery costs and the chances of failure are both likely to be higher in the former.

On paper, the best value for money might be to spend in stable countries instead of fragile ones. But spending money in places where it’s harder to operate can have preventative effects that significantly reduce the amount of spending required further down the line, whether it’s ensuring that Sierra Leone has a health system that could withstand an Ebola outbreak or making sure that high-quality education for refugees in Jordan gives children a future close to home.

The best value for money is not synonymous with “cheapest.” In fact the government’s own public procurement value for money assessment includes three measures of success: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. One cannot be judged in isolation of the others.

Multilateral reform

As the Multilateral Aid Review acknowledges, Britain’s contribution to institutions such as the U.N. Refugee and Humanitarian agencies is a critical part of our global influence and one of the reasons for our unique ability to convene global leaders in response to the world’s biggest problems.

Multilateral reform has become an important part of the secretary of state’s drive for value for money, and this is good news; Patel rightly expects more from the U.K.’s generosity. If we are to meet the commitment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind, international institutions need to adapt to the challenges that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people face. The World Bank in particular needs to work harder to ensure that it reaches the poorest people and that concessional finance is not wasted on countries that no longer need international support. The secretary of state’s speech to the World Bank in October laid out this challenge.

This need for reform is not a reason to retreat from the multilateral community –- far from it. Multilateral aid can be very effective. For example, the International Development Association, the World Bank’s financing facility, is still the most effective way to leverage private capital in the poorest countries, creating jobs and boosting productivity.

As the secretary of state demonstrated through her 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) commitment to the Global Fund, investment made alongside targets can both enhance the U.K.’s global standing and also sending a strong message that we expect more for our money. With the U.K. likely to withdraw funding from the EU institutions following the vote to leave the European Union, it has an opportunity to build on this approach.

Building public confidence in aid and putting the poorest first

While there is much to celebrate in today’s announcement, DfID at times risks undermining public support for the remarkable work it does around the world with its own media narrative. A series of articles highlighting the secretary of state’s campaign against waste have certainly sent a strong message, but they have not created supporters of aid. In order to ensure the British public can connect with U.K. aid, a more nuanced public debate is needed.

The secretary of state must also be cautious about downgrading aid as a tool to deliver “national interest.” There is absolutely a benefit to the U.K. from our aid spending: it makes the world a more prosperous and healthier place; combats climate change; and brings stability that we all share. But aid is most effective if it primarily strives to combat poverty. This can be done in multiple ways, whether through direct spending on education or health care, or by supporting countries’ ability to generate their own, independent revenue. Having one, clear purpose will always deliver better results. Research also shows that the public support aid because they are proud of the difference that this country makes for the world’s poorest people, not because they see it as self-serving. To this end, DfID must continue to prioritize the immediate alleviation of poverty.

Since taking office, the secretary of state has stated a number of new and admirable ambitions including economic development, which is of critical importance in helping countries stand on their own two feet and live up to the promise of the 2030 goals. However, before using bilateral aid to scale up in this area, the government must ensure that this does not come at the expense of spending on health and education, areas where DfID has a strong track record. As I learned from my recent trip to North East Nigeria — where the ongoing conflict has led to a food security crisis that is threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of children — U.K. support for functioning health systems is still desperately needed.

Anyone involved in spending taxpayers’ money should be dedicated to getting the best out of every pound, and the secretary of state has rightly wasted no time in making efforts to reshape the system to that end. As part of this, she must be unapologetic about ensuring that the needs of the poorest are the priority for everything that crosses her desk. Over the past 15 years, British aid has bought the mosquito nets that helped stop 6 million people dying from malaria, provided the equipment and training that ensured 5 million childbirths happened safely, and given 11 million children a chance in life by supporting them through education. A rapid move toward untested areas risks undermining both the quality of U.K. aid as well as the public’s connection with international development.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Kevin Watkins

    Kevin Watkins is the chief executive of Save the Children UK. He joined the Overseas Development Institute as executive director in June 2013. He is a former nonresident senior fellow with the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, and was previously director and lead author of the U.N.'s Human Development Report And the Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Before joining the U.N., he worked for 13 years at Oxfam. He is a visiting professor of international development at the London School of Economics and senior visiting fellow at Oxford University's Global Economic Governance Program.