The Foreign Secretary must act fast to tackle the crisis in UK aid transparency
As foreign secretary last year, the Prime Minister Liz Truss spoke of a Global Britain planting its flag on the world stage and tackling major challenges alongside our friends and allies. Now we know that this was nothing more than empty rhetoric as we face an unprecedented crisis in United Kingdom aid.
A damning new report from the aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), has found the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is failing to be sufficiently transparent with its use of the UK aid budget. Following the takeover of the Department for International Development (DfID) by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2020, transparency has nosedived. The merger has not worked, and Global Britain is becoming a lost hope.
As well as being a cornerstone of democracy, transparency helps the government maximise the value of taxpayers’ money. It ensures information is available and can be used to measure performance and prevent misuse of power – and because of that, it also helps make authorities more accountable.
The UK’s status as a global leader in development is no more
Before it was shut down, DfID was rated as one of the world’s most transparent aid agencies. As a result, the UK became a global superpower in international development, admired by our allies and changing millions of lives around the world. However, the abolition of DFID changed all that.
This recent rebuke is just the latest in a string of embarrassments. Already this year, the government has rightly received slaps on the wrist from the National Audit Office (NAO), the Aid Transparency Index and now the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). In its report, ICAI criticises the shocking lack of transparency over the aid cuts, the failure to provide information on spending priorities for individual countries, the declining standards of reporting for multi-million-pound aid programmes and the failure to even set a full department budget for the year.
The result has been chaos. The recent £4.6bn cut to the UK aid budget was hugely damaging to marginalised communities that the UK works with. Organisations on the ground had little to no information on how their programmes were going to be cut, by how much or when. What chance did they have to mitigate the effects? With zero notice, they were forced to shut off life-saving health services and deny girls an education. Our lack of transparency has damaged their trust in the UK as a reliable partner.
Meanwhile, global events – from the war in Ukraine to famine in East Africa and the floods in Pakistan – are piling pressure on the ever-diminishing UK aid budget. So much so, that the Treasury recently decided to temporarily block “non-essential” new payments for overseas aid projects as they would hit the hard cap of 0.5 per cent of gross national income. As with the cuts – and there are likely to be more to come – the lack of transparency around this freeze has had disastrous consequences for millions of people facing poverty, conflict, inequality and climate change.
Sadly, all this was predictable. Labour warned time and again that shutting down our independent development department would diminish our expertise and effectiveness. DfID was rated as a top performer by the Aid Transparency Index for six years running before it was axed by the Conservatives. The FCO in contrast was ranked 38 out of 46 aid-spending departments around the world in 2020.
This is why, at Labour Party Conference last month, Labour promised that it would create a new model for UK development with the independence it needs to tackle the challenges of the 21st century and reinstate Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of income on aid.
In the immediate term, ICAI’s latest report shines a much-needed light on this crisis but also provides useful recommendations on how it can be fixed. What is more, it gives Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and development minister Vicky Ford, now responsible for all development and ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) spend, an opportunity to demonstrate political will in their new roles at the FCDO. This means taking urgent action. They must work with the Treasury and other UK aid-spending departments to publish a UK aid budget ahead of the fiscal year, with a breakdown of each UK aid-spending department’s allocation, along with comparable breakdown of categories and countries.
The UK’s status as a global leader in development is no more. The abolition of DFID and cutting the UK aid budget were both great mistakes. It is now time to put this right.
Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central and former international development secretary.
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