Rumors circle FCDO's debut, US declines vaccine cooperation, and 'Doing Business' under scrutiny: This week in development

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Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which co-leads the COVAX initiative. Photo by: Bret Hartman / TED / CC BY-NC

Rumors swirl around the launch of the new U.K. aid and diplomacy office, dozens of countries join a COVID-19 vaccine initiative without the U.S., and the World Bank halts publication of its influential “Doing Business” report. This week in development:

The U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office officially launched Wednesday, signaling the start of a new chapter for Britain’s global development engagement — and the end of the independent Department for International Development. U.K. aid advocates have closely scrutinized the merger of the country’s diplomatic and development enterprises, and they have learned more in the last week about the staffing, oversight, and funding details of the combined office. Some staffing announcements — such as the decision to retain DFID Chief Economist Rachel Glennerster in the same role at FCDO — have been welcomed by an aid community that remains on edge. But the launch of the new office has also been overshadowed by rumors that the U.K. could abandon its commitment to spending 0.7% of its gross national income on aid, as well as ongoing concerns that aid resources could be diverted to programs that do not meet accepted criteria for foreign assistance spending. On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sought to dispel those rumors, calling them “tittle-tattle” and telling politicians that “not an element of it has reflected or characterized the conversations that I’ve had across government.”

Seventy-six upper-middle-income and high-income countries have joined COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing initiative that aims to ensure equitable access to a drug once it becomes available. The U.S. is not one of them. Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which co-leads the initiative with the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, provided an update on its international buy-in and funding in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. “This is good news. It shows that the COVAX facility is open for business and is attracting the type of interest across the world we had hoped it would,” Berkley said. The initiative aims to ensure that when a COVID-19 vaccine is available, it will be distributed globally to health workers and then to the most vulnerable 20% of participating countries’ populations. Funding from wealthier countries will drive the research, development, and distribution of the vaccine, but the initiative’s supporters point out that it is in every country’s interest to stop the spread of COVID-19 everywhere. “COVAX is the only truly global solution that has the capability to end the acute stage of COVID-19 pandemic,” a Gavi spokesperson wrote in an email to Devex last month. The decision by President Donald Trump’s administration not to participate — largely because WHO is involved — has been criticized as a shortsighted and self-defeating risk, since it could limit U.S. access to a vaccine if one is developed in another country.

The World Bank is delaying publication of its influential “Doing Business” report, due to concerns that its results may have been manipulated to benefit countries that saw their rankings jump in the high-profile index. The report is meant to compare countries according to how well they support private enterprise, tracking indicators related to regulatory reform, corruption, and reducing red tape. Data for four countries — China, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — appeared to be inappropriately altered, The Wall Street Journal reported. In a statement last week, the bank described “irregularities” with “changes to the data in the Doing Business 2018 and Doing Business 2020 reports” and announced that it would immediately conduct a systematic review and assessment of data changes related to the last five “Doing Business” reports, as well as an audit of data collection and safeguarding processes. The report’s methodology has come under scrutiny before, including when former World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer raised concerns about potential data manipulation, a criticism that led to his departure from the institution in 2018.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.