UK's cross-government aid strategy falters

British humanitarian advisers from the Department for International Development talk to Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

The United Kingdom Department for International Development is performing better than ever, according to a new report by the National Audit Office, but other departments — which now deliver more than 20 percent of official development assistance as part of the cross-government aid strategy launched in 2015 — are falling short.

The report, as well as members of the U.K. aid community, pointed to the ever increasing number of often intangible aid priorities as one reason why aid effectiveness may be faltering under the cross-government strategy.

The NAO — the body responsible for scrutinizing public spending on behalf of parliament — identified gaps in management, and a lack of clarity around who should monitor the effectiveness and coherence of aid spending across government departments as another culprit.

In addition, it points to uneven and sometimes rushed aid spending among non-DFID departments, and criticizes the Treasury for allocating aid budgets without first assessing departments’ capacity to spend ODA.

 “Other government departments have direct responsibility for their share of the development budget and are accountable to parliament and U.K. taxpayers for how they spend ODA.”

— DFID spokesperson

“In principle, a cross-government approach, and in particular greater coordination between DFID and the Foreign Office, clearly makes sense, and as a committee on the ground we’ve visited Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo — seeing greater integration on the ground makes complete and utter sense,” Stephen Twigg, chair of the Parliamentary International Development Committee said.

“But there’s also an aspect that’s deeply, deeply worrying that could mean that less money is going to the poorest people in the poorest countries,” he said.

In 2015, the U.K. government committed to spending 30 percent of ODA through non-DFID departments, including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, among others. Now responsible for about 26 percent of ODA, these departments also have a share in new cross-government funds, such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and the Prosperity Fund, both of which blend ODA and non-ODA funding to achieve priorities ranging from poverty reduction to security, in places as diverse as middle-income countries to fragile states.

On top of the U.K.’s mainstay aid priority of reducing global poverty, the 2015 Aid Strategy added three others: Strengthening global peace, security and governance; strengthening resilience and response to crises; and helping the world’s most vulnerable. The NAO points out a lack of measures to assess progress against the new priorities, which hinders efforts to establish coherence in the government’s aid strategy.

“The lack of measurable goals or targets for the rest of the aid strategy does raise questions about it's effectiveness as a whole-of-government strategy — if it's not measurable, [other government departments] can pretty much say they are meeting it however they like,” said Amy Dodd, head of the UK Aid Network.

“The Foreign & Commonwealth Office and others have already said quite clearly ... that they don't see the fourth objective on poverty as their main goal, but [that they] see their role as more aligned with other objectives which could raise questions about how developmental it is, but also about how we assess those projects and programs,” she said.

At the same time, Alison Evans, head of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which reports to the Parliamentary International Development Committee, said that despite a strategy that presented “a set of good intentions” rather than an “architecture or framework for a whole-of-government [approach],” the government is making strides in improving aid management and governance.

“There’s no question that at a working level there’s a lot going on, and they are filling in a lot of the gaps now, I think, across government departments,” Evans said, adding that much of the progress on the strategy will be ad hoc.

“The proof in the pudding in some of this cross-government work, I think, is the stuff we’re going to see [...] portfolio by portfolio,” she told Devex.

“The responsibility for overseeing it ultimately resides with the Secretary of State for International Development to keep an eye on that, and I think it’s well worth [keeping up the pressure] to make sure that is being done well,” she said.

Asked how DFID is contributing to other government departments in terms of knowledge sharing, ODA management and selection of delivery partners, a DFID spokesperson said that: “Other government departments have direct responsibility for their share of the development budget and are accountable to parliament and U.K. taxpayers for how they spend ODA.”

The spokesperson added that the Secretary of State “continuously reviews all DFID spending and stops programs deemed not to be delivering value for money or which fail to meet international development objectives.”

The NAO report acknowledges collaboration between the Treasury and DFID on monitoring ODA spending, although it also points to certain Treasury policies as counterproductive in the effective spending of aid.

The Treasury requires government departments to spend 90 percent of their ODA allocation within the calendar year, a restriction it has since relaxed after non-DFID departments failed to report within even 10 percent of accuracy of their ODA targets.

Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development for the Labour Party commended DFID as a “world leader in preventing fraud and managing aid effectively and transparently. But under this divided Conservative government, Ministers are fighting each other for control of the aid budget,” she told Devex.

“This report highlights how the ever-increasing proportion of Overseas Development Assistance now being spent by other government departments isn't subject to the proper scrutiny or effective management that we know DFID brings.”

Pointing to the government’s pledge to bring all aid-spending government departments up to a “Very Good” rating under Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index criteria by 2020, Osamor said the current government should “quickly make sure all aid spending by all departments meets key transparency criteria and is subject to scrutiny by Parliament's International Development Committee."

The report also indicates that government departments have shown signs of “rushing” funding in the latter months of their spending windows in an effort to hit the target. However, this could simply be a growing pain as departments adjust to the new aid spending goals, it suggests.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

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.