Statistics on international development: how is aid being spent?

20 November 2017
Author: Mike Green

The UK government has published its annual statistics on international development spending, showing that the UK provided £13.381bn of official development assistance (ODA) in 2016.

We are happy to see that the ratio of ODA to Gross National Income (GNI) for 2016 was 0.7%, meaning the International Development Act’s target has been met.

Where is aid being spent?

Humanitarian work remains the largest singular spend of ODA, accounting for £1.284bn or 15% of total ODA spent. This consists of three principal areas: initial emergency response; reconstruction, relief and rehabilitation; and disaster prevention and preparedness. The top five countries receiving ODA humanitarian assistance were Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq and Ethiopia. 

Humanitarian crises also accounted for changes in the geographical distribution of ODA. Bilateral ODA spend to Asia increased by 12.5% (£260m) to £2.344bn in 2016, driven largely by increases in ODA to Jordan and Syria – areas affected by the Syrian Crisis. This is a 12.5% increase from 2015.  

Total UK bilateral ODA to Least Developed and Other Low-Income countries dropped slightly to £2.592bn. This was a fall of £175m on 2015 and reflects a shift in spending to Upper Middle-Income countries affected by the Syrian Crisis. 

Which government departments are spending ODA?

The Department for International Development (DFID) spent £9.874bn, representing 73.8% of the UK’s total ODA spend in 2016. Compared with 2015, this was an increase of £102m, or 1%. ODA spent by departments other than DFID and other contributors of UK ODA (non-DFID) was £3.507bn or 26.2% of total ODA spent in 2016. This was an increase of 48.3% or £1.143bn in 2015. 

Other government departments spending ODA in 2016 include: 

  • the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who spent £696m or 5.2% of total spend (relative increase of 32% from 2015)
  • the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who spent £504m or 3.8% of total spend (relative increase of 29%) 
  • the Home Office who spent £360m or 2.7% of total spend (relative increase of 62%)

There are sensible reasons for the government to use the expertise of all departments to ensure the effectiveness of aid spending. The Department of Health for example manages the Ross fund, part of which supports research into diseases with epidemic potential, such as Ebola, as well as neglected tropical diseases that affect over one billion people worldwide. 

However, although these departments have expertise to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, they do not meet the same standards of aid transparency and accountability as DFID. This invariably raises questions about the quality of aid spent to address the needs of the world’s poorest people. DFID should continue to work with other departments to ensure that aid primarily strives to reduce poverty and promote inclusive, sustainable development as prescribed by the International Development Acts.  

The cross-Whitehall Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) accounted for the largest spending increase from a non-DFID source. From 2015, its ODA spend increased by £277m to £601m. There are increased calls on the CSSF to publish more data around the ODA spend of their programming, including from Bond chief executive Tamsyn Barton.

Maintaining transparency and accountability 

Meeting the target of spending 0.7% of the UK’s GNI on development assistance is a hugely welcome commitment to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The UK is assisting in the fiercest modern-day conflicts through its sizeable humanitarian aid budget which has continued to increase in size. However, the government’s aid strategy commits them to spending 30% of this life-changing aid through departments other than DFID by 2020. 

DFID will support other departments in delivering and quality-assuring their ODA spend with departments drawing on DFID rules for programme delivery. But civil society is rightly concerned about the transparency and accountability of this spend given the comparative lack of ODA experience outside of DFID. 

Furthermore, given the increasing number of departments spending an increasing amount of aid, it is crucial that the government establishes coherent objectives for all UK aid spending, with DFID holding responsibility for the overall aid strategy to ensure the consistency and integrity of UK aid.

What next for ODA?

The UK’s administration and definition of ODA is currently the subject of an inquiry by the House of Commons’ International Development Select Committee. Bond is submitting written evidence to this inquiry. For more information, please get in touch at [email protected]

Discuss current issues in international development at the Bond Conference 26-27 February, including sessions on the UK's vision for international development and government spending outside of DFID.

About the author

Mike Green

Mike was policy and advocacy adviser at Bond.