MPs have today called on the Department for International Development to improve its commissioning skills to better manage the technical, operational and commercial aspects of complex aid programmes.
In a report examining the impact of spending more of the UK’s aid budget through external aid contractors, the International Development Select Committee said that the amount spent through external agencies, which as well as multilateral bodies like the World Food Programme include both public and private sector contractors, had risen substantially. Spending through these contracts stood at £540m (12% of bilateral aid spend) in 2010/11, but rose to £1.34bn (22% of bilateral spend) in 2015-16, as the aid budget increased to keep track with the government’s pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on aid.
While MPs recognised there were “numerous advantages” to these deals, they also concluded that the shift had turned DfID from a delivery organisation into one primarily concerned with commissioning – and that the department must be more robust in managing this spending.
The rise in the use of private sector firms was increasing pressure on the commercial skills of civil servants, MPs warned.
“With both the size and number of contracts growing, there are increasing pressures on staff who, even with the assistance of commercial advisers, may not be equipped with the necessary skills and expertise to manage the technical, operational and commercial aspects of such large and complex programmes,” the report said.
Replacing development expertise in the department with commercial expertise, or overburdening existing staff, would hit the effectiveness of existing aid programmes, MPs said. The department must therefore improve its decision making on how aid programmes are carried out, and what the criteria are for the use of external providers.
“DfID should ensure that the emphasis on commercial expertise associated with the increasing use of contractors does not make generalists of DfID staff at the expense of technical knowledge and depth,” the report says.
A forthcoming supplier review will allow the department to take a more robust approach to the use of external contractors, who often operate on a for-profit basis, to ensure they represent best value for money.
Committee chair Stephen Twigg said “DfID has taken some steps to improving working relationships with contractors”.
“However, there are real concerns, also reflected by the secretary of state and in media, that clear parameters should be set for this work,” he said. “We agree with [international development secretary] Priti Patel that DfID’s contractors and partners should be held to the highest standards and there should be ‘no room for excessive profiteering or unethical practices’ in this work to deliver aid to the poorest people across the globe.”
DfID has been approached for a comment.