The UK aid watchdog has raised concern that transparency has dipped following the 2020 merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
A report out today from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact said the UK has established itself as a global leader on aid transparency but warned that “a recent decline in aid transparency risks sending a signal that the UK’s commitment to excellence in development cooperation is waning”.
The ICAI has called on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to maintain a clear commitment to aid transparency to strengthen the accountability and effectiveness of aid.
The review criticises “minimal” transparency around last year's aid budget reductions, a lack of information on aid spending priorities for individual countries, and the failure to publish a full FCDO departmental budget for 2022-23. The watchdog says this has restricted the ability of parliament and civil society to hold the government to account.
“Transparency is an intrinsic part of the UK’s commitment to and reputation for excellence in development cooperation,” ICAI commissioner Tarek Rouchdy said.
“DfID spearheaded efforts to increase transparency, helping to improve the value for money of UK aid and strengthen trust in the UK’s aid programme.
“But there is now concern that the transparency commitment has changed, and the presumption of disclosure has weakened. It is time for FCDO to build on a decade of UK efforts and aim for higher standards in aid transparency.
“Key decisions that will be taken by the department later this year will determine whether the UK maintains its strong international reputation for aid transparency.”
In June, the ICAI, the independent public body tasked with scrutinising British official development assistance (ODA), found the FCDO was “inadequate” in four areas, including transparency.
The watchdog said 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.
The ICAI review noted how the merger worsened the high levels of ODA transparency that had existed when DfID was a standalone department.
DfID topped the Aid Transparency Index from 2012-2020, with the department receiving an 85.4% “very good” rating in 2020. In contrast, the FCO had a 48.6% “fair” rating in 2020, albeit an improvement from its lowly 21.3% “poor” rating in 2012.
The newly formed FCDO was assessed this year by the index for the first time since the merger and received a rating of 71.9%, taking it down from first (as DfID) to fourth most transparent major ODA provider.
The ICAI said the drop in performance was concerning because more than 90% of the activities assessed were formerly managed by DfID. It said this indicated that there had been “a change in culture towards aid transparency” in the new department.
Despite the rating slide, the FCDO has only committed to improve its score in the 2024 Aid Transparency Index, rather than setting a target to fully reverse the declines and “regain global leadership on aid transparency”, the ICAI said.
This was “in stark contrast” to the DfID commitment made in the 2015 UK aid strategy to achieve a “good” or “very good” rating across all UK government aid spending departments, the ICAI said.
The watchdog said the department should go even further than that and commit to achieving a “very good’ rating in the index by 2024. It said the department could achieve this quickly with “targeted improvements”.
The review also called on the department to set out clear and ambitious standards for transparency to be applied to all aid portfolios, including default and timely publication of full programme documents.
Additionally, the ICAI asked the FCDO resume publishing forward aid spending plans, cross-departmental development results and country aid priorities.
Last year, the FCDO was accused of attempting to mask reductions in aid spending to poorer countries by giving fewer details about allocations to MPs.
The ICAI said transparency and reporting of FCDO forward spending plans “have been weak” since the merger, with no country plans currently available.
Amid the calls for improvements to the department's performance, the FCDO faces spending cuts, with foreign secretary James Cleverly warning on Tuesday that the Foreign Office will need to deliver to a “tighter budget”.
An FCDO spokesperson said: “As this report acknowledges, the UK is a global leader for aid transparency and we are committed to maintaining our record in this area. The department welcomes the report and will work to take forward its recommendations.”