Government departments have a fragmented approach to delivering overseas aid and the Treasury needs to take a bigger role in assessing their capabilities and the effectiveness of their spending, the National Audit Office has said.
In its latest report on the government’s success with its Official Development Assistance objectives, the public-spending watchdog said that while the UK was meeting its target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid, there was “insufficient focus” on departments’ skills.
The 0.7% target is a United Nations objective that the coalition government agreed to adopt from 2013. In 2017, the most recent year for which figures were given, the NAO said the actual value of the spending was £14.1bn.
While the Department for International Development’s ODA spending has remained broadly consistent at around £10bn a year since 2013, the proportion of ODA spending overseen by other departments has increased from £1.29bn in the first year to £3.96bn in 2017.
Other spenders of ODA include the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Foreign Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Home Office. Cross-departmental programmes also allocate some ODA.
The NAO said that while the Treasury looked at business cases for ODA expenditure, it did not have a role in considering the impact of actual expenditure, and that responsibilities for considering the effectiveness of ODA spending were “fragmented across government”.
It said that while a cross-government group of ODA-spending departments existed, its focus on the effectiveness of its funding was “limited”.
In its report, the NAO called on the Treasury to develop a systematic approach for assessing departments’ “capability and capacity to deliver their plans for ODA expenditure and their plans to consider the effectiveness of that expenditure”.
It said the Treasury should also use the next Spending Review to look at ways to make departments and cross-cutting funds more transparent about ODA spending, and set out guidance how to do so – such as including details in departmental annual reports.
In recognition of the impact that Brexit will have on ODA spending, the NAO said the Treasury and DFID must set out the steps they will take to make sure the UK continues to meet its 0.7% commitment.
The NAO also called on departments to classify their aid programmes by the type of performance measure that best suited them, to enable information about projects and their outcomes to be shared more effectively.
A government spokesperson said the UK was “recognised globally” as a leader in development, with work ranging from the response to diseases, such as Ebola and malaria, to tackling climate change and conflict.
“We are determined to spend aid where it is most needed and deliver the very best value for money,” they said.
“We welcome the scrutiny of the National Audit Office, and are already addressing some of the key points raised.
“Aid-spending departments work together to share best practice on project design and delivery, and transparency, and DfID and the Treasury are developing a system to more effectively track how aid is spent across the whole of government.”
Earlier this year, parliament’s International Development Committee warned that government had an “incoherent approach” to aid spending that pitched the objectives of UK Export Finance against those of DfID.