UK foreign office among least transparent aid donors globally, study finds

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office main building from Whitehall. Photo by: FCO / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office is among the worst performing aid donors globally when it comes to transparency, ranking 40th out of 45 donors assessed in the latest edition of the Aid Transparency Index

The department ranked “poor” in the index, showing no improvement on its categorization in previous years. As part of the U.K. aid strategy, established in 2015, the government committed all aid-spending departments to scoring at least “good” by 2020.

Produced by transparency watchdog Publish What You Fund, the index assesses global aid donors who give more than $1 billion annually based on how much data the institutions make publicly available, and how easy the data is to track. The metrics used to measure transparency have become more stringent in recent years, particularly around the frequency of publication. Organizations ranking “good” or “very good,” for example, typically publish program data on a monthly, rather than quarterly or annual basis.

“This is a wake-up call to the foreign office to up their game when it comes to aid transparency. Such a low ranking raises questions about how seriously the FCO is taking their commitment to improve standards,” Catherine Turner, director of advocacy at Publish What You Fund, said in a statement.

UK aid 'brand' at risk from cross-government funds, says IDC report

Official development assistance spent by departments other than DFID is less transparent, less coherent, and less poverty-focused, a report from the parliamentary International Development Committee has found.

FCO spends a little over $1 billion of the U.K. aid budget, or about 7 percent. It also houses three of the largest cross-government aid funds: The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund; the Prosperity Fund; and the first-suspended, now dissolved Empowerment Fund, all of which have recently come under fire for a lack of transparency.

By contrast, the Department for International Development, which spends 72.5 percent of the U.K.’s almost £14 billion ($18.43 billion) aid budget, is classified as “very good” in the index and ranked third out of 45 — climbing one spot from last year.

However, DFID’s share of the aid budget is set to drop as part of the cross-government strategy, which aims to see other departments spend about a third of U.K. aid by 2020.

“It's a worrying irony that, amongst the departments other than DFID spending aid, the foreign office has taken the most strides towards transparency, yet remains almost rock bottom in the rankings,” Katy Chakrabortty, head of advocacy at Oxfam Great Britain, said.

“The departments left out of this year’s index [because they don’t spend enough aid to qualify] are even further behind. This is not good enough at a time when the government already spends over a quarter of U.K. aid outside of DFID, which remains the department best placed to tackle poverty.”

Since the launch of the 2015 aid strategy, FCO claims it has embarked on a number of changes to the way it publishes data, including upgrading computer systems, streamlining the data entry process, and reviewing the level of detail included in publications. Many of these changes are strategic and long-term in nature, and are intended to facilitate better data publishing by 2020.

Aside from DFID, the departments that spend aid include FCO; the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and the Home Office.

“The government needs to have a clear roadmap which it pursues with real political determination to ensure that by 2020 all aid spending matches DFID's world-leading standards. That is vital to ensure U.K. aid is doing all it can for the world's poorest people,” Chakrabortty added.

In response to the new rankings, an FCO spokeswoman told Devex that FCO’s official development assistance budget “is tackling poverty and conflict, and boosting prosperity in some of the world’s poorest countries. We have made changes to improve our transparency, and routinely publish our aid spending” on the government website.

The spokeswoman added that FCO staff “are confident” the department will meet the government’s transparency commitment by 2020, and “are making sure that U.K. taxpayers’ money is spent well, in ways that advance the U.K.’s national interests.”

The five organizations which ranked below FCO include the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation; and China’s Ministry of Commerce.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former 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.