“What does government accountability of international aid look like?” I asked myself as I made my way through the corridors of Westminster, through an ornate door and into a packed room for the select committee hearing on how Official Development Assistance (ODA) is being managed in the UK. Having recently joined Publish What You Fund to provide research support for the UK Aid Transparency Review I have been delving into the finer details of the international aid debate and was pleased to see a large turnout of NGOs, civil servants and journalists at the hearing.
The changing UK aid scene
Over the last five years, the UK’s ODA spending has increasingly been channelled through government departments other than the Department for International Development (DFID). Although, as the DFID Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft pointed out, this does not mean DFID has had less ODA to manage. Rather, as the UK’s total ODA has increased in line with the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid, the additional money has been allocated to other departments – including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Ministry of Defence and Department for Education – to fund projects as diverse as: front line diplomacy; training in sea zone policing; climate change research and education costs for child refugees.
The National Audit Office has recently produced a report on the effectiveness of aid implementation under this new cross-government approach. The report highlights that: ‘Government is clear that transparency of ODA expenditure is an important aspect of securing value for money’ and raises concerns about the new departments’ capacity to deliver aid and about the effectiveness and value for money of the new programmes.
So, under an imposing historical portrait, the chair asked committee members in turn to put their questions to the representatives of four departments: DFID, the Treasury, BEIS and the FCO. Questions ranged from how value for money was being measured, how allocations were made and, of course, transparency of aid spending.
UK Aid Transparency Review
The hearing comes at a timely moment for the government departments – at Publish What You Fund we are mid-way through our initial surveying for the UK Aid Transparency Review. We are working to monitor and support the improvement of the transparency of aid across the UK Government. Our findings will be released at the end of November.
Several departments have begun publishing data on their ODA projects to the IATI registry (the internationally recognised aid transparency standard) for the first time. This includes data on project budgets, descriptions and contracts, as well as performance related documents such as project results and evaluations. At Publish What You Fund we are particularly interested in data from the latter, which can be used to learn and improve upon ODA effectiveness – helping with future allocation decisions and improving project design.
DFID has set the bar high for UK aid transparency – they scored in the ‘very good’ category of the 2018 Aid Transparency Index. Indeed, Sir Simon McDonald, the FCO Permanent Secretary, emphasised during the committee how his staff have been receiving training from DFID on implementing better monitoring and evaluation practices. It will be a significant achievement if departments such as the FCO – which scored ‘poor’ in the 2018 Index – meet the 2015 UK Aid Strategy commitment of a rating of ‘good’ or ‘very good’ by 2020.
Committee Chair Meg Hillier MP questioned the departments on their transparency commitments, asking: “Who is policing what is going on in individual departments to make sure that as much as possible is being made as transparent as possible?”. This elicited assurances from the departments, however, some of the challenges to better transparency were also raised such as: publishing on security spending; the blending of ODA and non-ODA funds which make it more difficult to publish data or the possibility of a senior civil servant or minister wanting to hide information.
Hold us to account with data…..
I observed during the committee hearing how departments are more willing to use processes of openness and accountability, and particularly the greater insights these processes can give, to improve how aid is being spent. There was a clear push to use data in a more iterative way to improve decision making and move aid spending to be more outcome than input focused.
Mr Rycroft brought the focus back to the use of data to improve accountability: “something that you should be holding us to account on, and that we should be focusing on, is data. Data is extremely difficult to come by in this world … but it is very valuable. Technology will allow us to have more quantifiable answers to the sorts of questions that you have been asking [about value for money].” One way to generate accountability data is for government departments to put more granular and more comprehensive data about their ODA spending into the public domain. This will open it to greater scrutiny from parliament and also from NGOs and researchers looking into aid effectiveness.
So, in answer to my question: active accountability of government aid spending looks like a demand for more and better transparent data to ground aid spending practices in evidence, and processes which open these to public scrutiny.