A progress report on aid spending across government departments has shone a light on multiple problems following the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development nearly two years ago.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact has found the UK government response “inadequate” in four out of seven areas subjected to review since 2020-21, with proper record-keeping, transparency, and a “strategic drift” in relation to policy among its concerns.
In a just-published progress report, the ICAI said “challenges” created by the merger of the FCO and DfID, and the UK’s decision to reduce its annual aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% had been central issues.
ICAI chief commissioner Tamsyn Barton acknowledged the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, which she said had diverted many officials from their normal jobs. But she said the merger and the controversial aid-cut were the principal sources of “turbulence”.
“In effect the merger is still under way, with structures and IT systems still being worked through, and priorities not clear until very recently, even though the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office began life as a merged department in September 2020,” she said.
“In the interviews we undertook in this review, officials often mentioned the merger and the delay in setting out the new priorities as a reason why the implementation of our recommendations had been slowed.”
Barton said the lack of clarity about priorities could best be described as “strategic drift”, although she accepted that last year’s Integrated Review had provided a high-level framework to give direction for resource-allocation ahead of May’s international development strategy.
She concluded: “It is to be hoped that clarity on the way forward will enable better implementation of ICAI’s recommendations next year.”
One area dubbed “inadequate” is the UK’s work to tackle fraud in the aid sector. The ICAI said the demands of the merger that created the FCDO, coupled with continued uncertainty about resourcing for strategic decisions had contributed to capacity shortages in the department’s counter-fraud team.
Monitoring, record-keeping and transparency is another “inadequate” area. The ICAI said its reviews suggested there had been a reduction in the comprehensiveness of record-keeping and documentation of the UK aid programme since the merger of the FCO and DfID.
“Although FCDO transparency requirements mean that all programmes should retain and publish key programme documents, such as business cases and results reporting, this has not always been done,” it said.
“Aid programme documentation is no longer systematically available for public scrutiny. Whereas ICAI could previously expect to find business cases and annual reports on UK aid programmes available in the public domain, these now often need to be requested from government, and the evidence provided on request varies in its comprehensiveness.”
The watchdog said it was crucial for the FCDO to strengthen its approach to monitoring and record-keeping in order to maintain institutional memory, and that records should also be accessible to enable public scrutiny of UK aid spending.
More positively, ICAI said there was evidence of stronger cross-government working and a more “survivor-centred” approach to UK aid programming on conflict-related sexual violence.
It also highlighted an improved cross-sectoral approach to maternal health focused on equity, rights and the quality of care.
An FCDO spokesperson said: “The creation of the FCDO brought together diplomacy and development, allowing us to respond to global challenges in a more coherent and unified way.
“The FCDO’s recently appointed director general for humanitarian and development will be responsible for the delivery of the new International Development Strategy, helping to address future challenges, support women and girls and get humanitarian assistance to those who need it most.
“We will continue to work closely with ICAI to ensure that all UK aid spending maintains our high standards of transparency and has the greatest impact.”
This story was updated at 3.05pm on 30 June 2022 to include an FCDO response