Today sees the publication of the first reports from the UK’s new Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI). ICAI was set up to ensure that UK aid maximises effectiveness and value for money, and to provide an independent counter-balance to the Department for International Development’s own internal reporting systems. It counts ONE Africa Policy Advisory Board member John Githongo as one of its four commissioners.
Of their four reports it is inevitably the one focused on corruption that has picked up the most media coverage. The rising proportion of UK aid being spent in fragile and conflict states presents an obvious challenge to DFID officials: how to operate effectively in higher risk environments? That is not a task to be taken lightly, but it would be a mistake for the UK to only spend aid in benign governance environments.
The UK has made strides on designing aid delivery mechanisms that are appropriate to different parts of the world. As the ICAI report on corruption points out, in Nigeria – a country where the risks of corruption are deemed to be high – only 0.04% of DFID money is in the form of government budget support, while the figure is 72.4% in Zambia. There is also now a greater focus on transparency over DFID spending and the UK has been a prominent supporter of the International Aid Transparency Initiative which seeks to create a common reporting standard for all donors – making it easier for citizens to see what money is coming into their country and where it is being spent. In addition, DFID recommends that in countries where budget support is used around 5% of the value of that aid is used to strengthen domestic accountability – i.e. to help local civil society organisations to hold their government accountable for money spent. Indeed ICAI makes strong additional recommendations on how DFID can assist partner countries fight corruption through improved transparency and accountability mechanisms.
Of course fighting corruption in many of the countries where UK aid is spent is not just the responsibility of DFID. The new Bribery Act lays out a zero tolerance framework for UK companies operating abroad. The UK has also been at the forefront of European countries supporting new transparency legislation that will require all listed and large unlisted oil, gas, mining and forestry companies to publish the payments made to governments on a project-by-project basis.
Clearly badly spent aid money should not be tolerated but it is also inaccurate to suggest that corruption can be eradicated overnight (we struggle enough in this country), or that inefficiency and human error can be prevented. Nevertheless, ICAI’s report makes clear that DFID has a key role to play in building up the structures and local systems that in the long-run will help transform fragile and conflict states prone to corruption into places that prioritise citizens’ development needs.
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