UK aid cuts imposed with no transparency, says watchdog

Icai review cites lack of access to officials and papers to assess aid budget since Foreign Office-DfID merger

UK aid cuts have been imposed with inadequate transparency, according to an independent watchdog, which said it was becoming increasingly difficult to interact with the government.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai), a public body that reports to parliament, said the lack of cooperation, partly due to the disruption of aid cuts, has meant it was unable even to assess whether recommendations it had previously made had been followed.

Its report also said that the culture of transparency for which the Department for International Development (DfID) was known had decreased since it merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year.

The watchdog said it had become difficult to access relevant strategy papers or senior officials to hold the aid budget to account, or to make findings on specific pieces of research the watchdog had undertaken.

The watchdog has already found that the first round of aid cuts were administered at such speed that serious mistakes were made, including damage to major bilateral aid programmes.

At the time of the merger of the two departments last year, there had been concerns that the Foreign Office was in effect taking over the large aid budget and imposing its own culture on DfID.

The Icai report appears to confirm that finding. The future of the body, set up in 2011 by the Conservative-led government in an effort to make aid spending more efficient, was put under question at the time of the merger. Critics will claim that instead of abolishing Icai, senior British diplomats have tried to weaken it through lack of cooperation.

The Icai report, a follow-up on how four previous sets of recommendations to the department had been addressed, said interaction with the relevant government departments and teams had “at times been challenging” and it had been “more difficult to get access to relevant documentation and arrange interviews with the right people for the follow-up”.

Responses to Icai requests were “sometimes slow and information necessary to assess progress on its recommendations was sometimes not provided”, it said.

“Draft strategies and working-level documents (in other words, those not published or signed off at ministerial level), which could have provided a sense of the direction of travel in areas affecting Icai’s recommendations, were generally not shared.”

Icai acknowledged that the research, undertaken between January and April, may have been carried out at a time in which the department was under maximum pressure due to the merger and cuts.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said it was fully committed to transparency.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokeswoman, said the report was “a damning indictment of the government’s lack of willingness to listen to the experts, act transparently and improve accountability for UK aid spending”.

She said: “The merging of DfID into the Foreign Office, together with the government’s decision to cut aid and break its promise to the public and the world’s poorest, mean vital progress has not been made on the committee’s recommendations.”

Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, a UK network of organisations working in international development, said: “With aid cuts now devastating programmes on the ground, it appears the merger of the FCO and DfID has contributed to UK aid regressing in terms of quality, transparency and openness.

“As the FCDO approaches its second year, we urgently need to see better engagement with Icai and a recommitment to much-needed transparency.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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