The world is facing some of the hardest and most isolating challenges in living memory.
The spread of Covid-19 and other deadly diseases, conflict, poverty and climate change are just some of the crises that governments, communities and civil society are having to navigate.
How the UK invests its aid budget is more crucial now than ever. We can all see the importance of countries having strong national infrastructure so that the world can collectively tackle pandemics. These are the nuts and bolts of effective development and humanitarian responses, so the announcement of the International Development Select Committee (IDC) review of UK aid effectiveness is timely.
UK aid needs to be effective if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), leave no one behind and have any hope of building a world capable of meeting the global challenges of disease, climate change, equality and poverty head on.
Here are four issues we hope will emerge in the IDC’s inquiry.
A focus on “Mutual prosperity” is undermining UK aid’s effectiveness
The Department for International Development (DFID) has a world-class reputation. Whether it’s immunising millions of children, helping to bolster sustainable economies in developing countries, or providing children around the world with the chance to gain a decent education, DFID remains one of the best examples of Britain’s impact and reputation on the global stage.
However, in recent years we have witnessed a shift towards an aid agenda that, at best, puts the economic interests of the UK alongside those of the very poorest people in the world, and at worst, above them. This type of aid primarily focuses on delivering economic “win-wins” for both donors and recipients, and predominantly shifts aid away from lower-income countries towards middle-income countries.
We are yet to see evidence of where this has benefitted either the UK or people facing poverty. By making trade-offs between poverty reduction for the world’s poorest people and national economic gain, without any clear evidence that this approach delivers either objective effectively, we risk undermining the strength of DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and other aid-spending departments.
Who administers Official Development Assistance (ODA) counts
Transparency is key to making aid effective, as well as ensuring accountability to the British taxpayer. Yet it is no secret that the other government departments spending UK aid are less transparent and accountable than DFID, which has repeatedly scored highly on the Aid Transparency Index in recent years. Conversely, cross-government funds and other departments, including the FCO, have time and again fallen short of meeting the government target.
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With suggestions that the FCO’s role in relation to aid spending may be increased, it is particularly worrying that the department continues to be one of the worst performers on aid transparency. The FCO is yet to commit to more rapid improvements to better the quality of its aid spend in order to ensure it reaches those who need it the most.
Independent scrutiny bodies such as ICAI and the IDC are more important than ever
If the UK does end up delivering more of its aid spending outside DFID, then we will need scrutiny and transparency more than ever. We know that scrutiny is helpful. Not just to departments and those civil servants new to spending Official Development Assistance (ODA), but also to ministers and politicians who will benefit from an improved culture around learning and transparency. This is crucial when spending taxpayer money in complex parts of the world. And critically we have seen evidence that this scrutiny has improved performance. So the role of independent scrutiny bodies the IDC and ICAI are critical and must be protected and strengthened.
Development experts are key to the strength of the Integrated Review
The government’s forthcoming Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy is an opportunity for the UK to define a coherent and effective approach to its efforts overseas. If the government wants the foreign and security policy review to be “the most thorough rethink for a generation”, and to consider the “totality of opportunities and challenges” the UK faces, it will be vital to keep the prime minister’s pledge to consult with experts beyond Whitehall.
A thorough review requires inclusive and reflective consultation with those who are worst affected by and most familiar with the crises faced today. Their perspective will help the UK tackle issues such as climate change, inequality and authoritarianism, which have not been sufficiently addressed in past reviews, which have tended to be defence-dominated .
This IDC inquiry can therefore play an important role in protecting the effectiveness of UK aid if it is effectively fed into the Integrated Review process. We would encourage this to happen. With no clarity yet on the process for wider engagement in the Review, and with many experts now consumed by the focus on tackling COVID19 globally, it is unclear when and how UK NGOs or security and foreign policy experts are going to have the capacity to engage with this critical process. The UK government should consider delaying the Review or extending the timeframe to ensure there is meaningful engagement of those that deal daily with the challenges it seeks to address.