Poverty reduction risks being diluted by new UK aid plan, MPs warn

22 Mar 16

The UK’s new overseas aid strategy risks marginalising the historic focus on poverty reduction, the International Development Select Committee has warned.

Traditionally, poverty reduction has been the primary aim of the UK’s aid spending and programmes. However, in a report issued today, the committee said it was concerned that the country’s new approach may dilute this focus, with the UK’s national interest or the priorities of the various government departments that deliver aid taking its place.

Labour’s Stephen Twigg, who chairs the committee, stressed that tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable “must remain unequivocally the first priority of UK aid spending”.

According to the report, framing the strategy in terms of the UK’s national interest creates the potential for a reduced focus on poverty reduction, which it highlighted is a statutory requirement for aid spend by the Department for International Development.

Under the new strategy, other government departments will take control of an increased share of the UK’s aid budget.But these other departments are under no statutory obligation and their other priorities, such as improving the business environment or governance, may take precedence, the MPs said.

They called on the government to make reducing poverty an explicit and legal requirement of all aid spend, no matter which department it originates from.

The committee pointed out that, in the strategy, reducing poverty is listed as the last of four strategic objectives, following strengthening peace, security and governance, strengthening resilience and response to crises and promoting global prosperity.

This is despite DFID’s statutory obligation, the traditional prevalence of poverty reduction in UK aid, and the weight given to it in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, where ending “poverty in all its forms, everywhere” is the first of 17 objectives.

While the committee welcomed the new focus on fragile states outlined in the aid strategy, it said the UK’s definition of fragile problematic as it fails to capture the complexities of the causes of fragility.

The committee said that it is not clear how DFID arrived at its new definition or what that definition entails.

“We need to understand how this term is being defined and how it will inform decisions about who should receive development assistance,” Twigg explained.

Under the new strategy, the UK government discontinued one form of support for everybody altogether: general budget support – unearmarked contributions to governments’ budgets.

But the committee called on the government to clarify its evidence for ending this form of aid and recommended the option be retained when systems are in place to effectively monitor transparency and accountability.

However, the committee noted some work towards transparency and accountability needs to be done at home too. While DFID has long been a leader in aid transparency, other government departments like the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense are notoriously opaque, the MPs claimed.

The new strategy commits all departments to being ranked as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the International Aid Transparency Index within five years – a timescale the committee called “unambitious and unacceptable”.

This should be reduced to two years, they said, making a pitch for powers to scrutinise the aid spending and activities of all government departments.

Responding to the report, Saira O’Mallie, interim UK Director of the ONE Campaign, agreed with the committee that the revised aid strategy “puts is in dangerous water”.

She went on: “As one of the most transparent government departments, DFID should closely monitor how others spend overseas aid to ensure that every penny spent is delivering results for the poorest.

“The government has announced that half of DFID’s budget will go to fragile states, yet the rationale for which countries meet this definition is hazy. By contrast, we have a robustly defined list of the 48 countries that are home to a significant proportion of the world’s poorest. We therefore urge the government to invest 50% of the aid budget in the countries that have the least.”

A DFID spokesman said: "We are tackling extreme poverty by adressing the root causes of global issues and those include terrorism, corruption, disease and instability. This is both the right thing to do and smart thing for our national interest."

He noted that all four of the new aid strategy's objectives have equal weighting and the order in which they are listed does not confer importance. 

He continued to say that "building a safer, healthier and more stable world requires using knowledge and expertise from a vareity of government departments". This must be in line with internationally agreed standards on aid spend and the government will be increasing scrutiny and transparency to ensure value for money and effective aid spend across government, he added. 

DFID and the Treasury will continue to co-chair a working group examining value for money and the UK's Independent Commission for Aid Impact has a remit to review aid spend by all government departments, the spokesman added.

He explained that the UK's definition of fragile states is based on open source data from a range of sources and will continue to be updated to reflect real-world changes and cross-border issues.  


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