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The UK, as a global leader in Official Development Assistance (ODA) transparency, is in decline

Changes in recent years, including the merger of DFID and FCO, Official Development Assistance (ODA) cuts and the new International Development Strategy have resulted in a loss of ODA transparency according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) report published a few weeks ago.

What were the key points in the report, and what can the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) do to reverse the decline?

Re-making the case for ODA transparency

The review makes a strong case for why transparency of ODA matters and recognises it as an important principle. Transparency impacts development outcomes; it is vital for delivering and measuring value for money for both the communities we seek to support and the British taxpayer and is crucial for accountability. People should be able to easily see what spending is planned and where ODA is going.

We have been concerned for some time now about the erosion of transparency of Official Development Assistance (ODA), and have been advocating for better transparency for a number of years. The lack of transparency has severe implications, undermining both partner countries and the sector’s ability to make informed choices for effective planning and delivery of humanitarian and development programmes.

Differing approaches to ODA transparency by FCO and DFID

The report recognised that DFID became a global leader in transparency, with a “clear and coherent approach”. In contrast, the FCO is noted to have “had a more ad hoc and discretionary approach”, with no commitment to publish programme documentation ODA documents such as business cases or project completion reports. As a result, practices varied significantly across its ODA portfolio.

Two years after the merger, the FCDO is still in the process of unifying the management systems of the two predecessor departments. The review flags that the culture of transparency differed between the two, and the FCO’s culture is disproportionately dominating the new department – despite over 90% of the FCDO’s ODA spending coming from ex DFID portfolio.

The opaque process used to implement ODA cuts highlights the decreasing priority placed on transparency – little information was made publicly available and there was a lack of consultation with key stakeholders. The review notes that information on reductions and revised budgets were only released after a significant delay. Even when information was eventually released, it was challenging to scrutinise because the format was not consistent with previous reporting, making comparisons with previous years difficult. Concerningly, seven months into the financial year, there is still no full FCDO departmental budget for 2022-23 and no dedicated results reports have been published.

How is FCDO performing against its transparency commitments?

The 2015 strategy, UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest, set out a commitment for all ODA spending departments to achieve a “good” or “very good” rating in the Aid Transparency Index (ATI).

Not only has the FCDO failed to commit to DFID’s previous ambition levels, but they have also taken steps backwards in their actual performance. When the FCDO was assessed in the 2022 ATI, the UK dropped 13.5 points compared to DFID’s 2020 score and fell out of the top performers. The review’s analysis shows that this drop is due to a number of factors including the lack of publication of country priorities and budget information, which in turn affects the ability of parliamentarians and civil society to hold the department accountable.

The FCDO has a key role in supporting other departments with their ODA transparency commitments. The Transparency Community of Practice, for example, convenes technical officials to explore transparency best practice and challenges. While the review’s scope excludes other ODA spending departments, there is a real opportunity for this Community of Practice to support them to improve the quality of their reporting to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, especially in the face of increased spending of ODA by other government departments.

How has the UK learned from people’s experience of using published ODA information

Information must be accessible to different audiences and users. So, whether the UK has sought (and learned from) feedback from users of ODA transparency information is an important aspect of assessing its overall transparency. After all, what good is information if no one can understand or make sense of it?

The review notes that the published information on ODA was mainly used by “experts” i.e. DFID (and now FCDO) staff, INGO and research groups in the UK rather than people in partner countries. It recognises that DFID did undertake some engagement with potential users during the early stages of developing DevTracker, and under both DFID and FCDO there have been reviews of the Statistics on International Development. However, there have only been modest changes based on this engagement – in part because of limited resources.

Opportunity for the FCDO to up its transparency game

The review laid out four recommendations that FCDO should:

  • set out clear and ambitious standards for transparency;
  • commit to achieving ‘very good’ in the ATI;
  • resume publishing forward ODA spending plans, cross-departmental results; and country priorities; and
  • work with other donors to support greater use of IATI data.

We wholeheartedly support these recommendations but believe that to advance this agenda, the Foreign Secretary and Minister for Development must demonstrate political will and leadership, working with other ODA spending departments and HM Treasury to reverse the decline of ODA transparency.

In the coming weeks and months, there are several opportunities for the FCDO to take remedial action to change this downward trend, including:

  • how it responds to the ICAI report;
  • what steps are laid out in its updated Programme Operating Framework;
  • progress on its existing commitments under the National Action Plan;
  • undertaking meaningful, inclusive and deliberative engagement with civil society;
  • and of course, how it approaches any further ODA cuts.

Join Bond’s Transparency working group!

The Transparency working group brings Bond member organisations together to discuss the value of transparency and accountability for international development and humanitarian organisations.

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