The government's international development efforts must remain focused on poverty reduction as more departments take on responsibility for aid spending, MPs have said.
The government released a new aid strategy in November, alongside the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Currently, the UK is committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on international development, and last year's cross-government review sought to place a greater emphasis on tying aid to wider national security and foreign policy objectives.
In the last parliament, the Department for International Development was responsible for around 85% of the UK's total overseas development assistance (ODA) spending, but the new strategy saw ODA spend allocated across departments through a Treasury-run competitive bidding process for the first time.
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According to a new report by MPs on the International Development Committee, that will mean ODA spend through DfID is likely to fall to about 72% over the next four years – and the committee says it is concerned about a potential "lack of priority given to poverty reduction within the aid strategy" as a result.
"This is especially a risk with other government departments, which have key aims other than poverty reduction and some of whose spending may not fall under the powers and requirements of the International Development Act 2002," the committee says.
"Poverty reduction must be the primary purpose of UK aid spending, with other objectives surrounding security and the national interest flowing from it, rather than the other way round. We are also deeply concerned at the absence of any mention of human rights in the new UK aid strategy."
"Risks creating an impression that poverty reduction is no longer the top priority"
While the MPs give broad support for the cross-government approach, and back the decision to increase the amount of ODA spent in supporting so-called fragile states – defined as being prone to poverty and weak government – they say the UK should make reducing poverty a legal obligation for all ODA spending, "regardless of which department is spending it and which legal power it is being spent under".
Launching the committee's report, chairman Stephen Twigg said the new strategy shone "a welcome light on the world’s fragile states and regions".
"However," he added, "the new strategy risks creating an impression that poverty reduction is no longer the top priority. The most important principle of allocating UK aid should always be that it is allocated to areas where it can most effectively be used to reduce poverty, which is clearly in the UK’s national interest.
"The committee is also concerned about the definition of 'fragile state'. We need to understand how this term is being defined and how it will inform decisions about who should receive development assistance.
"The UK has worked hard to establish a reputation for transparency and accountability in this area. With the increasing involvement of other government departments, DFID needs to have an oversight of all ODA spending in order to ensure aid continues to be spent effectively.
"Finally, where other government departments become involved in UK aid, they need to stand up for the world’s poorest people. Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world's most vulnerable must remain unequivocally the first priority of UK aid spending."
Speaking to the committee during its inquiry, DfID's permanent secretary Mark Lowcock (pictured left) said he did not believe the new strategy would "change the very strong focus we have on poverty", arguing that it was a "false distinction" to suggest that their were tensions between the wider national interest and international development goals.
"Problems that would otherwise bump up on our shores or borders or inside our own country often have their origin—pandemics, terrorism, conflicts, things in the international economy and climate change—in other places," he said.
"The government believe that it is in the national interest to tackle those problems at source, which also contributes to the reduction of poverty. What the government are trying to do in here is make the point to the country that the national interest on these things is essentially the same as development interests and reducing poverty."