UK aid is amazing. Behind the millions of lives saved, the children who’ve got the chance to go to school or the economic opportunities open to people, UK aid has changed the world. The reason it has such an impact can be summed up in two words: ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’.
While the latter is certain for now – the commitment to provide 0.7% of Gross National Income in Official Development Assistance (ODA) is enshrined in law – the former is not. The question of aid quality has been on the minds of many NGOs, as we see a drop in the performance of UK aid.
UK aid is at its best when it’s focused on eradicating poverty, spent effectively as possible and transparent to all. This is the real aid which has made a real change to the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people.
There has been a recent shift, however, where some UK aid is not meeting the high standards it should. A main driver of this is more aid is being spent outside the Department for International Development (DFID) by departments who don’t meet the same high standards of poverty focus, effectiveness and transparency. The trend of more aid going to other departments is expected to increase, with 30% of UK ODA being spent outside of DFID by 2020.
That’s why ONE has created the Real Aid Index, the first detailed breakdown of how each department that spends significant amounts of aid (over £100 million) is performing. It also looks at several of the biggest funds that spend aid but sit across several departments. The Index assesses how well the departments and funds are doing in the areas of poverty focus, effectiveness and transparency, awarding them a ‘green’, ‘amber’ or ‘red’ rating.
The results of the Index show a mixed picture, with departments and funds performing at different levels in different areas. DFID performed the best across all three areas, scoring green in everything – which is heartening given that they are responsible for the lion’s share of UK aid. Other departments, such as the Department for Health and Social Care also scored well on spending their aid with a poverty focus, given their research into preventable diseases. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) also performed well in transparency, as it is easy to track how they spend their aid.
Other findings, however, are less positive. There is £1.5 billion of UK aid is spent with little transparency. While UK aid is officially untied, at least £475m of aid comes with strings attached that is has to be spent through UK institutions. Two departments, BEIS and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), spend very little aid in the world’s poorest and most fragile countries (5% and 16% of their aid respectively).
The FCO performed poorly on transparency too – only in late 2018 it was ranked 40th out of 45 in the Aid Transparency Index, with a ‘poor’ rating.
Cross-Government Funds – where different departments pool their funds towards a common objective – are not performing at the level expected. The largest recipients of support from the Prosperity Fund – a £1.2bn cross-government fund set up to support inclusive growth, with a ‘secondary benefit’ to UK business – are middle income countries. At least £250m is going to Brazil, Mexico, China, Turkey and South Africa, and this means less for the world’s poorest countries, the ‘least developed countries. To put it in context, that £250m could fund pre-primary, primary and lower-secondary education for over 1.3 million children for a year, and access to basic health care and nutrition for more than 1.7 million people for a year if it was spent in the least developed countries.
Our Index tells us that the Government needs to consistently meet high standards for aid spending, regardless of who is spending it. This is a timely issue, with the upcoming Spending Review, which will allocate department budgets for the coming years. The Government should use this moment to require all departments spending significant amounts of ODA to perform to the highest level and ensure their aid is ‘real aid’. As our Index shows, some UK aid does not meet the standards of being poverty focused, effective and transparent – the Spending Review is the chance to make sure this happens.
Until all UK aid is ‘real aid’, we will not stop in holding the UK Government to account for how they spend this precious resource.
By Romilly Greenhill, ONE’s UK Director