UK aid watchdog ICAI 'must continue' its work, says foreign secretary

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Photo by: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The role of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the United Kingdom's public development watchdog, appeared safe Wednesday as the government published the results of a review that had sparked concern about its future.

In a written statement to Parliament, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “the review concludes that ICAI provides strong external scrutiny of UK ODA and offers excellent support to Parliament in its role in holding the government to account. This must continue.”

However, Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee to which ICAI reports, suggested the review does not sufficiently guarantee the watchdog’s independence.

Raab announced a government-led review of ICAI on Aug. 29, just before the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office opened its doors. The move, which followed a threat to shut down IDC, the committee that scrutinizes U.K. aid on behalf of Parliament, led to concern among development advocates that channels for scrutiny were being diluted, especially as ICAI has earned a reputation for driving improvements in U.K. aid.

“ICAI plays a crucial role in scrutinising UK aid and ensuring transparency so that the British taxpayer and people facing poverty know that aid is spent effectively.”

— Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research, Bond

The government has since U-turned on its bid to close IDC. As for ICAI, Raab said Wednesday that it has “an important role in driving learning and focused action as well as providing assurance to UK taxpayers and Parliament. Its formal remit should therefore include lesson learning as well as scrutiny and evaluation to enable its recommendations to lead to real change.”

ICAI’s independence was mentioned in the report but was not directly addressed. In a foreword to the review, Raab wrote: “An independent voice to provide additional challenge is invaluable.”

The report also states that ICAI will maintain its current focus on “independent evaluation and scrutiny” and that its commissioners will “exercise full control and make final decisions over ICAI’s workplan.”

But IDC’s Champion said in a statement: “It is concerning that sufficient account may not have been taken of the Commission’s all-important independence; especially as that is the specific role defined for it in the 2015 [International Development] Act.”

The main thrust of the report’s conclusions was that ICAI should “better support government learning,” including by giving practical recommendations to FCDO and other aid spending departments.

The report, carried out in consultation with development organizations, made 15 recommendations. Among them was that FCDO should appoint an official responsible for the relationship with ICAI and that officials should have regular meetings. It also said both groups should look into the possibility of secondments to the other.

It also said ICAI should “plan its work with the Government’s strategic objectives for ODA in mind.” FCDO’s new aid strategy, focused on seven “global challenges,” has been criticized for failing to make a specific commitment to poverty reduction.

The report also suggested ICAI “consider developing … an improved approach to assessment ratings in reviews.” The organization currently uses a traffic light system that has been criticized for ambiguity.

A joint statement from ICAI commissioners Tamsyn Barton, Hugh Bayley, and Tarek Rouchdy, said: “Robust, independent scrutiny of how public money is spent has never been more important. We share the government’s desire to promote learning about ‘what works’ across departments, in order to ensure that taxpayers and aid recipients alike get maximum impact and value for money from UK aid.”

“We welcome the assurances that ICAI will continue to operate independently in setting and delivering its programme of work, and in reporting its findings to parliament through the International Development Committee. We look forward to building a closer working relationship with ministers and senior officials, which will ensure our reviews and recommendations are championed at the highest level.

“We will now work through the recommendations in more detail and determine, with the department, the best way of implementing them.”

The announcement was also welcomed by civil society. Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond, the U.K. network for development organizations, said: "This is a timely and welcome review. With the aid budget in decline, despite the levels of poverty rising, it has never been more important to ensure that every penny of UK aid goes to the people who need it the most. ICAI plays a crucial role in scrutinising UK aid and ensuring transparency so that the British taxpayer and people facing poverty know that aid is spent effectively. Key to ICAI's effectiveness has been its independence and access to government information, both of which must be safeguarded.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.