UK aid for Haiti being loaded onto a Royal Fleet Auxillary ship
UK aid for Haiti being loaded onto a Royal Fleet Auxillary ship Department for International Development/Russell Watkins - Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Why we need more transparency in aid spending

The UK currently spends 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid, something which has been enshrined in law since 2015.

The UK spends this money in line with OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) aid rules.

As per the OECD DAC’s definition, aid spending should ensure that “the economic development and welfare of developing countries its main priority and it is not advancing the business interests of the donor.”

As part of a mechanism to protect UK aid, and to keep ensuring that tax payers’ money was going to those who need it the most, the UK government set a target that any government department responsible for spending UK aid would be required to “introduce greater transparency” into their work.

This aid strategy would help increase efficiency and effectiveness of aid spending, and increase cooperation between departments and share what works. The government also set out a commitment to ensure that all UK government departments would be ranked as “good’ or “very good” in the international Aid Transparency Index (ATI) by 2020.

Disappointingly, the 2020 ATI has found that five years after the aid strategy which committed departments to take transparency seriously, only three out of 10 spending departments have met the target.

More alarming still, the evidence shows that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the second largest spender of UK aid money, only recently got a rating of “fair”. While this represents an improvement on previous years’ grading, it falls well short of the UK government’s own commitment to having all departments rated as “Good” by 2020.

Transparency doesn’t exist for transparency’s sake

Transparency is a precursor to making aid work better for the poorest. If we can’t show people where, when or how UK aid is being used to reduce poverty around the world, we can’t hope to improve the standards of our programming and results.

Transparency is not another condition applied to UK aid to make it more complicated or harder to spend. Commitments to increase transparency exist for a reason.

The Busan Partnership Agreement 2011 states: “Transparency and accountability to each other, mutual accountability and accountability to the intended beneficiaries of our co-operation, as well as to our respective citizens, organisations, constituents and shareholders, is critical to delivering results. Transparent practices form the basis for enhanced accountability.”

Put simply: it is so we know who is being helped, what impact it is having on people’s lives, and whether or not we should continue with our work. It is how we encourage others to help, by sharing data and expertise for higher-quality programme delivery. And it is how we stay accountable not just to the people we are helping, but the people whose money we are using to do so: the British taxpayer.

Our suggestions for the UK government

So, with so few departments hitting the target, what happens now? Do we accept that transparency never was and never will be a possibility for UK aid and abandon our commitments? Do we extend the government’s target for another year to give departments one last chance to meet the “good” rating? Or do we take a firmer stance and suggest that until departments can demonstrate their commitment to taking transparency seriously and achieve the desired rating of “good”, they shouldn’t be spending UK aid at all.

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Going in to the foreign policy review, we need to be sure that there is a desire to change organisational culture to value and promote transparency at the heart of government decision making. And that government establishes systems that support this, not prevent it. Some solutions might be:

  1. to ensure that openness and digital ways of working are at the heart of the civil service shakeup for aid spending departments, and learn from those departments which are already embracing digital.
  2. to increase investment in systems and people that support greater transparency and accountability internally to other departments and externally
  3. to put best practice risk management in place to protect sensitive data and increase the confidence of staff to release information.

Ultimately, we need to be sure that if such discrepancies of performance on transparency continue, official development assistance (ODA) allocation will be based upon evidence. These targets should exist to help policy makers make informed decisions. As yet, we are still to see evidence that this is the case.

We know UK aid is transformative, both at home and away. It has allowed us to take on some of the biggest challenges facing humanity and establish ourselves as a global leader, but we can’t rest on our laurels. Starting with the highest levels of transparency, we need to ensure that UK aid continues to serve those who need it the most.