Tamsyn Barton set to be new head of UK aid watchdog

Tamsyn Barton, new chief commissioner of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Photo by: UKinBH

LONDON — The new chief commissioner of the United Kingdom’s aid watchdog has vowed to look deeper into aid spent through multilateral agencies; to improve how the agency monitors government responses to its findings; and to consider reforming its current rating system.

Tamsyn Barton will take over as head of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact at the beginning of 2019, after the parliamentary International Development Committee endorsed her appointment. She had previously been backed by Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt.

IDC Chair and Member of Parliament Stephen Twigg said: “I am delighted to endorse Dr. Barton’s appointment and to welcome her to her post. Dr. Barton has had a long and successful career in international development, and I am confident that ICAI will go from strength to strength under her leadership.”

ICAI was set up in 2011 to conduct reviews into how U.K. aid is being spent, including providing recommendations to government. It reports to IDC, a group of politicians tasked with scrutinizing aid spending, and last year produced nine reports.

Barton was formerly chief executive of U.K. aid network Bond and previously worked at the U.K. Department for International Development for more than a decade. She also has experience at the European Investment Bank, and NGO Practical Action.  

Speaking during her preappointment hearing with IDC earlier this month, Barton said she sees a strong role for ICAI in helping regain public trust in the effectiveness of aid and outlined a number of areas where she would like to see the commission do more. This included greater oversight of funding to multilateral institutions, pointing out that 40 percent of U.K. official development assistance goes through agencies including the World Bank and the United Nations.

“To my mind, there has not been enough scrutiny of the multilateral programs … We need to work out better ways of giving that assurance and explaining to the public how the money is used multilaterally,” she said.

Barton also said she planned to explore ways of getting U.K. aid “beneficiaries” more involved in ICAI’s “information gathering” processes and would work to improve the government’s response to ICAI recommendations, to avoid what she described as “slightly weasel language to escape the really tough recommendations.”

This will involve instituting clearer recommendations that do not allow for “wiggle room” in terms of interpretation, she said. While IDC and civil society can play a key role in pressuring DFID to follow through, Barton also said she would personally exert her influence as chief commissioner.

“Where there is a recommendation where there is some doubt about whether it would be followed up, it needs to be a decision whereby I as the chief commissioner would know there would be follow through in keeping the pressure up,” she said.

ICAI currently uses a “traffic light system” for scoring the government’s performance, assigning color-coded ratings. Barton said the originally proposed system of red, amber and green was “too crude” and would lead to a “clustering in the middle.” Even under the slightly adjusted system currently in use, most reviews have ended up being amber-green, she said, indicating she was open to exploring new approaches, including numerical scoring.

“I am inclined to have something that makes it very visible when there are serious concerns.  That is my bottom line,” she said.

Barton also indicated she would like to see ICAI play a greater role in scrutinizing ODA spent through cross-departmental funds, such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which mix ODA and non-ODA resources. IDC has been outspoken in its desire to see DFID have greater responsibility for oversight, and ultimately signoff, over how all U.K. ODA is spent. ICAI has similarly raised concern about these funds.

At the preappointment hearing, Barton also indicated she would like to see ICAI given greater access to the activities of funds such as CSSF, while balancing this against the need to keep the agency focused.

“ICAI obviously does not want to have mission creep into examining everything … [but] there is a serious issue as it stands in trying to provide effective scrutiny of CSSF,” she said.

However, on Thursday, more than a week after Barton’s hearing, the government rejected a call for ICAI to be handed responsibility for scrutinizing blended ODA and non-ODA programs.

Barton, who announced she would leave Bond back in March, will replace ICAI’s current chief Alison Evans, who is leaving to become head of the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group.

Update, Sept.19: This story was amended to correct Barton’s start date, and to clarify the traffic light scoring system.

About the author

  • 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.