In 2015, the UK enshrined in law its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, also known as official development assistance (ODA).
Since then we have seen a substantial change in the way the UK government spends its ODA, which raises concerns around accountability, impact and transparency.
Questions remain over which objectives the UK is prioritising, and who is responsible for these decisions. With more government departments spending aid, how do we know whether it’s really reaching the people who need it?
Is UK ODA doing what it should?
Last week, a flurry of reports came out which sought to assess how the UK delivers aid. Both these reports highlighted a problem with the growing trend of spending UK ODA outside of the Department for International Development (DFID). Despite a lack of expertise and capability in this type of spending and programming, more parts of government have been spending ODA, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and cross-government investment funds, like the Prosperity Fund.
Their decisions mean that our ability to deliver the true objectives of UK aid – and international rules which govern how countries legally spend their aid – is in doubt.
The most recent National Audit Office report into aid effectiveness found that despite the HM Treasury’s oversight of aid spending, these other departments lacked the knowledge and tools to understand how effective this money was in reducing poverty around the world.
Why are we concerned?
Any organisation or department responsible for spending ODA should be adhering to the principles of transparency, accountability and value for money. These principles should be applied in the current rules-based system that the UK operates in and are key to making sure aid spending goes where it is most needed.
But evidence suggests that, despite an increase in budget going their way, departments outside of DFID cannot meet these requirements. Very few departments have demonstrated improvements in transparency, despite being a key objective of the International Development Act.
This isn’t the first time transparency has emerged as an issue for spending outside of DFID. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) and the International Development Select Committee found poor practices across the government joint funds in recent years.
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Who is accountable?
In addition to the unclear picture of what impact aid spending outside of DFID is having, there is a vacuum of accountability.
As more departments favour a cut of the aid budget, so too do ministers and those with other conflicting objectives. Despite the UK having a secretary of state for international development, the position has been weakened by the decision to spend more money outside of DFID without attaching any formal DFID ministerial-level oversight.
Whilst the 2015 Aid Strategy sets out clear objectives for how ODA should be spent, other departments lack the expertise to ensure programmes are designed, delivered and evaluated in the best way.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to hold the many various departments to account when there is an array of different strategies at play.
These problems all lead to the same problem: how can we ensure that aid spent by the UK government reduces poverty, and economic and gender inequalities, and promotes sustainable development in line with the International Development Act if we can’t always be sure who is responsible for delivering it?
What do we want to see?
In the absence of evidence that performance is improving, and with time running out to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, DFID must continue to operate with a secretary of state who holds full accountability for how aid money is spent across all government departments. Until aid spent by departments beyond DFID can demonstrate they comply with UK development objectives and standards, they should not have their budgets increased.
At such an important time for the UK and our commitment to deliver on a global stage, DFID is the UK’s best example of leading on poverty-focused aid spending. We should commit to enhancing this leadership through increased resource and funding at the next spending review.
While there are communities living in poverty, the government shouldn’t be looking to redefine the terms of how UK aid is spent, and by whom.
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