The Department for International Development should be given the power to approve spend on humanitarian aid which is increasingly coming from other departments including the Foreign Office, a cross-party group of MPs has urged.
In 2015 the government committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on Official Development Assistance (ODA), which it said would be achieved in part by increasing the proportion of aid spent by departments other than DfID.
But the International Development Committee has warned that some activities “are being badged as ODA without a clear focus on poverty reduction”.
The parliamentary committee also said moving ODA out of DfID “provides opportunities to harness skills and networks from across Whitehall” but creates risks to the coherence and transparency of overseas aid.
The committee’s Labour chair Stephen Twigg said: “We call on government to set out individual departmental responsibilities for delivering, overseeing, monitoring and coordinating ODA and how they correspond to the aims of the UK’s 2015 aid strategy.
“Ultimately, DfID’s experience in administering ODA means it should sign off on all the UK’s ODA, tightening up practice in other departments, developing capacity and receiving adequate resources to do so.”
The report stressed that DfID must play a leading role in developing capacity in other departments to administer ODA effectively.
“It should continue to second staff to other government departments, developing skills and promoting a poverty reduction-focused culture in ODA programmes across Whitehall,” it said, adding that DfID would need to receive adequate resources to cover backfill within the department.
The UK’s ODA spend amounted to £601m in 2016-17.
When DfID was established it was responsible for all UK ODA spend. Over the 2011-15 spending review period the department oversaw about 85% of total ODA spend, with the remainder spent mostly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the cross-government Conflict Pool – a predecessor to the current Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) – and the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is now the current biggest spender of ODA besides DfID, with the FCO set to increase its proportion.
Today’s report warned of the risks to transparency of taking ODA away from DfID. DfID is “respected worldwide as an accountable deliverer of aid” but other departments spending ODA are less open, it said. The CSSF, for example, redacts “large tranches of information” in the name of national security.
Twigg warned that the two of the funds responsible for delivering a proportion of humanitarian aid – CSSF and the Prosperity Fund (which aims to support economic growth) – may have aims that clash with that of ODA. The two funds are overseen by the National Security Council, and since April 2018 they have been administered by a Joint Funds Unit that sits in the Foreign Office.
“Countries should not be selected to receive ODA via the CSSF funding based on security rationale alone,” he said. “With a heavy emphasis on promoting UK trade, the Prosperity Fund risks losing the rightful focus on poverty reduction and is a step towards the return of tied aid. We recommend that existing programmes should be reviewed.”
The report also pointed out that compared with DfID’s spend, a larger proportion of the ODA delivered by departments such as the Home Office and FCO tends to go on administrative costs.
The report comes after the Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat called for the Foreign Office to regain control of overseas development, as well as trade and intelligence.
A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear, we must ensure that the aid budget is not just spent well but could not be spent better and standards are raised across government to achieve value for taxpayers’ money.
“UK aid spending is best done using expertise across government, with departments working together in a joined up way.
“We continue to press for quality and consistent aid spend to achieve results for the world’s poorest to successfully tackle global challenges such as disease and conflict to make us safer at home - which is firmly in the UK’s interests.”