UK government dodges questions about the future of ICAI

James Cleverly, joint minister of state for DFID and FCO. Photo by: Peter Nicholls / Reuters

LONDON — The U.K. government repeatedly failed to offer reassurances about the future of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact on Wednesday, despite questions from parliamentarians concerned about the future scrutiny of development policy.

James Cleverly, a minister with joint foreign affairs and development briefs, answered questions from politicians debating the forthcoming merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

The government was urged on several occasions to retain ICAI, which is widely viewed by development experts as a critical aid spending watchdog, even attracting the attention of other donors looking to improve their development programs. But when addressing the question of scrutiny, Cleverly did not reference the extra-governmental body.

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He said: “Scrutiny as a minister is a bit like a trip to the dentist. It is sometimes painful but it is absolutely necessary and it is for the greater good. And we welcome scrutiny and I have no doubt that our ODA [official development assistance] in the future will be scrutinized, scrutinized effectively. And we welcome that scrutiny, because we are proud of the work that we do.”

Many experts are concerned, however, that there has been little detail about what that scrutiny will look like under the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. The International Development Committee, a cross-party group of politicians which acts as another key strand of development scrutiny, is already under threat of closure.

Public money “must be scrutinized by this House and made sure it is spent appropriately and correctly, and that’s why I am passionate in defending the ICAI commission,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which monitors FCO and could be responsible for scrutinizing development policy going forward.

Cleverly also did not answer questions about a consultation with NGOs and development experts on the DFID-FCO merger, which Labour Member of Parliament Mary Kelly Foy said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “misled” Parliament about.

He did however say the U.K.’s spending of 0.7% of gross national income on ODA would remain and that using at least half of that in fragile- and conflict-affected states would be an “enduring commitment.”

Defending the timing of the merger in the middle of a pandemic, he said “I don’t envisage a point in time when there will be no major significant challenges around the world to give us breathing space and headroom to make changes.”

The debate saw arguments from across political parties, with politicians often voicing concern about the merger and the potential consequences for U.K. development policy. Shadow International Development Secretary and Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill warned against returning to a past when “aid used to oil the wheels of trade deals.”

“Scrutiny as a minister is a bit like a trip to the dentist.”

— James Cleverly, Conservative MP

Former Secretary of State for International Development and Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell — who created ICAI — described the merger as an “extraordinary mistake” and warned of a narrative that moved the U.K. away from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-Development Assistance Committee rules that govern aid spending.

But fellow Conservative MP Bob Seeley, who has long advocated for the merger, said “we do need to look again at ODA. We are permanently trying to revise the rules on ODA and we should not be ashamed to do so.”

Tugendhat also voiced his support for the merger but highlighted some criteria that he said would be necessary for success, including maintaining the “culture” of DFID and not making the mistakes of the merger in Australia, which was blamed for a loss of development expertise.

“We must remember … it's a merger of equals and not a takeover … [or] perhaps this is a DFID takeover” of FCO, he added.

Mark Garnier MP, who serves as co-chair of the Conservative Friends of International Development, said he would advocate for cabinet representation. “One thing that may be a good idea would be to have a Chief Secretary of International Development in the same way they have a Chief Secretary of the Treasury,” he said. He also suggested that a permanent secretary — a top civil service official — for development would be “helpful,” although the government has already said there will be only one permanent secretary for the new FCDO.

Garnier also stressed the need for clarity over the role of DFID on the U.K.’s arms export control, where the department sits alongside the Ministry of Defence, FCO and Department for International Trade, offering a humanitarian perspective on discussions.

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.