UK aid figures spark renewed alarm over cross-government spending

U.K. aid for people fleeing violence in Myanmar. Photo by: DFID / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics revealed Thursday a 9.2 percent increase in aid spent outside the Department for International Development in 2017, despite growing concerns about its cross-government strategy.

The provisional U.K. aid statistics show that 72.5 percent of the U.K.’s official development assistance went through DFID, down from 73.8 percent in 2016. The rest of the funding went through other government departments, cross-government funds, and nondepartmental sources.

Although expected, the news of the increase comes just days after the U.K. aid watchdog issued a blistering review of the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and follows a turbulent year for the strategy.

Overall ODA increased by 4.2 percent to 13.933 million British pounds ($19.526 million) in 2017, according to the ONS figures, once again meeting the government’s 2013 commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on overseas aid. This represented an increase of 555 million British pounds on the previous year.

Which non-DFID departments are spending ODA, and how?

The latest ODA statistics show that the proportion of U.K. aid being spent outside the Department for International Development has risen by 50 percent year-on-year. Devex looks at which other government departments are spending the most ODA, what they use it for and what concerns it raises.

Spending outside DFID increased by 322 million British pounds, and represented about 27.5 percent of total ODA. The U.K. government has committed to spending 30 percent of ODA through departments other than DFID by 2020.

Aid groups in the U.K. expressed concern about the increase in cross-government aid spending, warning that non-DFID spending may be infringing on its other pledges, namely those around aid transparency and ensuring that all ODA contributes to poverty reduction.

“The 2020 U.K. Aid Strategy includes a commitment for all government departments spending ODA to achieve either ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the international Aid Transparency Index,” Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director at the ONE campaign, told Devex.

“We are concerned that, two years off this deadline, there has been little progress in the transparency of non-DFID ODA, which now accounts for more than a quarter of U.K. ODA. The government needs to take urgent action to address this.”

The primary spenders of ODA other than DFID include the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, which spent 5.5 percent of ODA in 2017; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which spent 4 percent; the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which spent 4 percent; and the Home Office, which spent 2.4 percent.

Also included in the non-DFID spending figures are nondepartmental sources of ODA, primarily the U.K.’s contribution to the International Monetary Fund’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust, which accounted for 5.2 percent, and the non-DFID European Union contribution, at 3.2 percent.

Katy Chakrabortty, head of advocacy at Oxfam GB, highlighted the potential ambiguity of aid priorities when ODA is spent through departments that have not agreed to DFID’s poverty reduction mandate.

“With aid increasingly being spent by departments other than DFID, it is essential that the top priority for aid remains helping those in greatest need,” Chakrabortty said.

Aid watchdog calls for 'urgent steps' to fix CSSF

"Too many programs showed signs of basic design errors, with poor delivery and a lack of quality control," according to an Independent Commission for Aid Impact review of the 1.2 billion British pound ($1.7 billion) Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

“Recent critical reviews of aid spent outside of DFID — including last week's independent review of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund — suggest that other departments have work to do to match DFID’s high standards of transparency and effectiveness, so as to ensure that every penny has maximum impact for the world’s poorest people.”

Objectives for the CSSF, which mixes ODA with non-ODA, are set by the National Security Council, with programs managed by the FCO. The CSSF replaced the earlier Conflict Pool, and shares its aim to fill the gap between security and traditional development and humanitarian spending. Its remit includes police and security training, peacekeeping, and humanitarian logistics, among others, which has raised concerns about the securitization of ODA.

“Another concern is aid allocation across countries,” Chakrabortty said. “Three quarters of non-DFID ODA is allocated to middle-income countries, including to upper-middle income countries such as China, Brazil, and Mexico. While many of these countries are home to large numbers of poor people, they are much more able to support poverty reduction efforts using domestic resources than least developed countries.”

The U.K. government has drawn criticism from some parts of the media and public in recent years for providing aid to middle-income countries such as India, although research shows the majority of the world’s poorest live in middle-income countries, including India, China, and Nigeria, and that rapid urbanization and migration patterns will likely result in large impoverished populations in the world’s middle-income nations.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.