The Department for International Development will not lose sight of its commitment to reduce global poverty as the government asks other departments to play a bigger role in spending overseas aid money, DfID’s top official Mark Lowcock has told CSW.
The UK is committed to spending 0.7% of its Gross National Income every year on Official Development Assistance (ODA). While DfID has traditionally taken the lead on how that money is allocated — spending around 80% of ODA last year — the government’s new Aid Strategy envisages a greater role for departments including the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The government argues that tying aid spending more closely to the wider “national interest” — by focusing on four key areas including conflict prevention; responding to humanitarian crises; encouraging economic development; and cutting poverty — will be both more effective and help command public support for the 0.7% commitment.
Who has the best civil service in the world? DfID chief Mark Lowcock on the UK’s plan to find out
DfID’s results agenda places too much emphasis on ‘quantity of results over quality’ - aid watchdog
Strategic Defence and Security Review: £12bn boost to defence equipment budget
But MPs on the International Development Committee last month expressed concern that the new approach risked a “lack of priority” being given to DfID's traditional focus of helping people living in extreme poverty.
“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 said. “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.”
Speaking to CSW, Lowcock — the permanent secretary at DfID — said the government had been “absolutely clear” that it was not setting poverty reduction “to one side”. All departments would, he stressed, have to comply with strict rules set by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on what constituted aid spending.
He said: “Official Development Assistance is governed by a set of rules that require that everything has to be broadly for the purposes of development.
"We also have a legal framework in the UK. A lot of government departments spending ODA are actually using the 2002 International Development Act as their legal basis for doing that, and if they are using that act, they have to fully comply with it.
"There are one or two departments which have got other legislation, so they will maybe use their own legislation. But if it’s going to be Official Development Assistance, they still have to pass the test set by the OECD."
Lowcock added: “The government has been absolutely crystal clear that it is determined to keep the UK in the position where we have the reputation internationally of providing the highest possible quality and the biggest possible impact on poverty in what we’re doing — and that means fully complying with the OECD rules and being completely transparent and open to scrutiny from the select committee and the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) and others.”
"Whole different ball park"
The UK’s ODA spending is scrutinised by the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, a watchdog set up in 2011 to bolster oversight of international development projects. ICAI is funded by DfID and reports to parliament.
Questioned about the impact of the Aid Strategy on DfID’s work, Dr Alison Evans, ICAI’s chief commissioner, told CSW it was “not entirely new” for the organisation to be working with other government departments.
But she said: “The commitment to deliver billions of aid in cross-government funds and through other departments' budgets is really a shift upwards in terms of ambition around this whole-of-government approach.”
This approach would, Evans explained, pose both opportunities and challenges for DfID, with the department able to collaborate with the rest of Whitehall to try and ensure aid was better allocated.
But she pointed out that other departments do not have the same level of experience as DfID in handling aid spending, and said they would have to get used to complying with the OECD’s rules on what counts towards the 0.7% target.
"DfID is at the disposal of the rest of government"
Lowcock said his officials would be working closely with the Treasury to try and ensure that departments were able to handle the shift implied by the Aid Strategy, which is expected to see the proportion of development assistance spent by DfID fall from 85% in the previous parliament to 72% over the next five years.
And he explained that this had already led to some DfID staff being taken on by other departments looking to harness their development expertise.
“We have been asked to help across government, and in fact lots of government departments are hiring people from here to help them manage larger volumes of development spending,” Lowcock said.
“I basically think that’s a very good thing, because we have completely fantastic people here who are really good at what they’re doing and if they can help others with that, that’s a good thing. There are some days when I would quite like my colleagues to hire a bit more slowly from us, because we need to make sure we’ve got the right staffing capability as well.
“But DfID is at the disposal of the rest of government in maximising the effectiveness and impact and value for money of the whole of that 0.7%. So I’m a big fan of this being done much more as a cross-government exercise because when I listen to people I meet in developing countries, one of things they’ve been saying recently is that they think the UK has a very broad offer.
He added: “I think if we engage the whole of government here we’re going to do a better job on development globally. But building up those relationships is also good for the UK."
CSW’s full interview with Mark Lowcock will be published next week. For more, see our story on his plan to help measure international civil service effectiveness