Q&A: ICAI's Alison Evans on the state of UK aid

Alison Evans, director-general of the Independent Evaluation Group at the World Bank and former chief commissioner at the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Photo by: World Bank

LONDON — The former head of the United Kingdom’s aid watchdog has warned that mounting pressure on staff at the Department for International Development has led to less “innovative and courageous” programming and a tendency to focus on single intervention “best buys.”

After nearly four years as chief commissioner at the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, scrutinizing the impact and value for money of U.K. aid, Alison Evans is moving on to become director-general of the Independent Evaluation Group at the World Bank.

“You cannot be complacent about the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda.”

— Alison Evans, former chief commissioner, Independent Commission for Aid Impact

During her tenure, Evans witnessed major changes, including three international development secretaries as well as a series of safeguarding scandals which rocked the U.K. development sector. But perhaps the most significant changes have resulted from the controversial 2015 aid strategy, which called for more official development assistance to be spent by government departments beyond DFID. It spawned the creation of new, blended cross-government funds, most notably the Prosperity Fund and the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

Under Evans’ leadership, ICAI was quick to respond and started producing shorter, real-time “rapid reviews” — the first of which focused on the Prosperity Fund — in order to “quickly get eyes on these new pots of money,” she explained. This first review raised serious questions about the fund’s development impact. It recommended extending the expenditure timeline, which the government subsequently implemented.

For Evans, who is a development economist by training, this first rapid review was an “important success” for ICAI, which she credits with having “a huge amount of traction” in terms of influencing government thinking on aid through its reviews, recommendations, and follow-ups.

Still, Evans has enduring concerns about the Prosperity Fund and other cross-governmental spending. She is also worried that DFID — for all the positive work the department does — may have lost its appetite for creative, innovative programming and is instead increasingly focusing its efforts on relatively simple, isolated interventions.

Devex sat down with Evans during her last days at ICAI to get her thoughts on the state of U.K. aid, where it has come and where it might be going.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your concerns going forward about the cross-government funds?

We’ve spent a whole number of reviews commenting on the need for more deliberate collaboration building on the relative strengths of [different aid-spending] departments …

The U.K.’s response to global health threats stands out as the really good example of what cross-government collaboration can really bring, where departments were able to draw on their relative strengths and work very effectively together. But we’ve clearly got other [areas] where ICAI is less convinced that’s happening.

The area of security and justice will be one where the responsibility now lies under CSSF — DFID has previously built up quite a capability in that area and it’s not entirely clear who exactly is doing what, and how well, together.

How is DFID responding to the challenge of more cross-government aid spending?

DFID is now not only focusing on delivering well against its own agendas; it’s also increasingly being asked to support other departments. That’s the right thing to do, but it puts additional demands on staff time. Staff are [also] under pressure because of rising demands for reporting, monitoring, due diligence, and safeguarding. Those are all important but the question is what else is giving … It’s really important that ... reporting on compliance does not become the story of aid delivery because clearly it’s about delivering impact and changing people’s lives.

“It’s really important that ... reporting on compliance does not become the story of aid delivery because clearly it’s about delivering impact and changing people’s lives.”

The cross-government piece is both an opportunity and challenge [for DFID] and it is a question of how to walk the tightrope. It’s in DFID’s interest that all U.K. aid is spent well. It is clearly its responsibility to ensure that the 0.7 percent [target for aid spending] is achieved. It’s also the case that an increasing amount of that spend happens outside of its direct oversight and therefore it is having to work harder to make sure that the whole U.K. aid initiative is maintaining high standards.

What have been some of the standout successes for DFID, according to ICAI reviews?

DFID’s work on violence against women and girls stands out as our [best-scored] review. That really captured DFID at its most innovative and courageous.

This is a very challenging area of programming, where there wasn’t a huge amount of good evidence about what works. But DFID committed to both trying to generate that evidence and also to working in innovative ways in difficult environments to test it out.

It’s been a real sign that even on difficult agendas like trying to shift behaviors and social norms, it is actually possible to do something very tangible.

Our recent review on the humanitarian response in Syria is another stand out one. There, even though it’s incredibly challenging DFID actually invested in quite an innovative approach, using data to target its response toward localities within Syria where people were in the severest need.

DFID had to deal with quite a lot of opposition from [United Nations] partners and others who have historically taken rather a blanket approach to the provision of assistance … Through a lot of compelling data and persuasion, DFID was able to really move the needle amongst partners. This has subsequently shaped the humanitarian response, particularly in areas outside of government control.

Where has DFID got the most work to do to improve?

There is definitely a story of mixed performance and there are areas where we’ve been less impressed. Some of the common features are a failure to join up the elements of the U.K. response and a tendency to program in silos — that can generate missed opportunities for maximizing the impact of ODA spending.

Secondly, we’ve felt the commitment to reaching the hardest to reach and most marginalized groups hasn’t been carried all the way through.

There may be a paper commitment, but actually, we’ve seen that commitment slightly weaken or evaporate through delivery. This is often for a variety of reasons and not through willful neglect, but through trading down the ambition of programs if there are objections from countries, or losing sight of things when they go to commissioning with contractors or simply not monitoring the right things …

You cannot be complacent about the “leave no one behind” agenda. It has to be a very active and deliberate part of delivering development assistance and needs to be constantly assessed and reassessed.

“The strategic wrapper ... saying ‘and this is how we are also going to ensure that this bundle of interventions works together in a way that really moves [a country] in a positive direction’ seems to have been lost slightly.”

Thirdly, at times, we’ve been a little bit confused by DFID’s position on the learning agenda [the process of learning from experience]. On the one hand, DFID is a fantastic investor in research and evidence but that investment hasn’t always been translated into genuine uptake by staff working on U.K. aid-funded programs, nor have we seen global evidence around what works and that evidence being translated into the work at country level.

Learning has become a bit orphaned but it needs to be actively supported, encouraged, and acknowledged to be a key part of every staff member’s day to day. That requires cultural change and creating the space for it within the organization.

Considering the increasing pressures on staff and also negative stories about the aid budget in the British press, has DFID lost its vision?

DFID has always maintained a very clear focus on delivering aid well. But I do think it has somewhat translated its priorities, at times, into a set of best buys that it can deliver safely and well, but that aren’t always understood in terms of the agenda of transformative change.

[It has gone for] low-hanging fruit and a lot of isolated, intervention-specific support, such as treatment for malaria bed nets, family planning commodities … All really important, but the strategic wrapper around that, saying “and this is how we are also going to ensure that this bundle of interventions works together in a way that really moves [a country] in a positive direction” seems to have been lost slightly.

The kinds of tools and instruments that DFID has developed in the last few years are not so well suited for incentivizing DFID to do really creative stuff.

Update, Jan. 9: This story was updated to clarify that ICAI’s rapid review of the Prosperity Fund recommended extending the expenditure timeline.

About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    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.