A box of ready-to-use-therapeutic foods with the U.K. aid logo. Photo by: Rebecca Beauregard / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has reaffirmed it is not afraid to break the international rules governing aid spending and hinted it could run with its own definition if it does not achieve the “modernization agenda” it is seeking.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee currently sets the rules for its 30 member countries, covering the majority of development aid spent globally. However, the U.K. has been pushing for several years to broaden what can be counted as official development assistance under the committee’s rules.

The government’s reform agenda includes counting humanitarian aid delivered to disaster-struck but richer countries toward ODA, and increasing the amount that can be spent on United Nations peacekeeping operations. Currently, only money spent supporting lower- and middle-income countries can be counted, and contributions to peacekeeping are capped at 15 percent of ODA.

More on the U.K. government’s response to the IDC inquiry:

Aid minister does not need signoff on ODA spending, says UK government

In its response to a parliamentary inquiry into ODA administration, the U.K. government rejected several recommendations for strengthening the DFID's oversight of ODA, as ever-more is spent by other parts of government.

The U.K.’s position is outlined in DFID’s response to a parliamentary inquiry into the definition and administration of ODA, which was conducted by the International Development Committee and published in June. DFID’s statement, released Thursday, puts it in direct opposition to many of the IDC’s recommendations.

Where IDC recommends that DFID continue to work within the OECD-DAC to deliver a “consensus-based process” for reform and not develop its own ODA definition, DFID responded that it “partially agreed.”

“We are committed to working with our partners at the DAC on further reforms, but we will continue to reassess our approach to ensure we are effectively delivering on our ODA modernization agenda,” the response states.

It comes a few weeks after Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt indicated the government would be willing to ignore the rules around ODA eligibility in order to fund disaster relief for wealthy overseas territories that do not qualify under the DAC rules.

Currently, the UK can and does deliver humanitarian aid to these territories but cannot count this toward its 0.7 percent of gross national income ODA target.

Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, a network of U.K. international development NGOs, said the government’s stance could damage its reputation as a leading donor.

“The current definition ensures that ODA spending is targeted on poverty reduction, and although imperfect, attempts to ‘update’ the definition risk unintended consequences and could place the U.K.’s global reputation in jeopardy,” she said.

Katy Chakrabortty, Oxfam GB’s head of advocacy, agreed: “The prime minister has recently spoken proudly about the value of U.K. aid to the world's poorest people. We have a global reputation to protect. The coming budget should be used to make sure the vast majority of aid is spent by departments best able to uphold that reputation.”

The U.K. has been lobbying to change the rules around supporting disaster-hit wealthier countries ever since the government sent millions to support its overseas territories in the Caribbean, which were devastated by a series of hurricanes last year. OECD rules say the territories — including the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla — are too rich to be eligible to receive ODA, so the money had to be found from other budgets.

The government raised the issue during last year’s DAC high-level meetings in Paris, France. Although it was forced to withdraw its initial proposal, the committee said it would consider allowing “reverse graduation,” whereby a country or territory can go back onto the list of ODA-eligible countries if a crisis causes its per capita income to fall back below the eligibility threshold for a period of time.

While the IDC report urged DFID to continue supporting the push for a reverse graduation mechanism, committee members were against what it described as “more far-reaching proposals such as allowing all humanitarian assistance, irrespective of the economic status of the recipient country or territory, to be counted as ODA.” Such a reform would “undermine the concept of international assistance,” and likely be met with “near-universal opposition,” according to the authors.

However, DFID disagreed, saying it is “working to prepare an evidence-based proposal for further consideration,” adding that a DFID staffer has been seconded to OECD to work on it.

DFID’s response on using ODA for security-related spending also went against IDC’s advice. The committee recommended the U.K. government oppose any moves to increase the amount of ODA that can be spent on peacekeeping activities, arguing that “such activities are not entirely focused on poverty reduction.” The ODA cap on peacekeeping operations was already increased from 7 percent to 15 percent after the 2016 DAC meetings.

DFID has now said it will push for the figure to be even higher, on the basis that peacekeeping has a greater impact on development than is reflected by the current 15 percent coefficient.  

“We are proposing a further review of peacekeeping missions to see whether more activities could be counted as ODA,” its statement said.

However, some pointed out that since the U.K. currently only allocates approximately £400 million ($522.65 million) a year to the peacekeeping budget, even doubling the coefficient would only equate to an additional £60 million.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.