“Strategic oversight” was the phrase that pricked up the ears of supporters of the UK’s aid commitment when Tom Tugendhat MP, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, made a speech to RUSI last week. While he acknowledged the need for DFID to continue as an independent department, Tugendhat said that to ensure a more cohesive foreign policy, the departments concerned with aid, trade and defence should come under the “strategic oversight” of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
While consistency in foreign policy is vital to the UK’s role on the world stage, when it comes to aid, putting diplomatic objectives ahead of humanitarian ones risks diluting the impact that we can have for the world’s poorest people. For the Ministry of Defence or the Department for International Trade, this may not present major problems, because all are pursuing the British national interest. However, aid is by definition a tool of international development, and while there is some merit in applying the capabilities of other departments to it, oversight by the Foreign Office would risk pitting benefit to Britain against benefit to the developing world. Aid is in the British national interest because it helps to build a healthier, safer and more prosperous world, but if it is driven by self-interested objectives it will be less able to achieve this.
Today’s report from the International Development Committee also considers the issue of strategic oversight, in the context of the decentralisation of control over the aid budget as a growing proportion is spent outside DFID. The shift away from DFID has seen a reduction in the percentage of aid targeted at the world’s poorest countries, and in the proportion spent in the sectors critical to children’s life-chances, such as healthcare, while the transparency of aid spending by other departments often comes in for criticism from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
The Committee’s intervention is significant, because, three years on, it provides the first detailed analysis of the impact of UK Aid Strategy’s decision to set a target to spend 30% of ODA outside DFID by 2020. The diagnosis is clear – enabling DFID to provide greater oversight of cross-Government aid spending, more systematically sharing its world-leading expertise and experience as a donor, and possibly even allowing it to play a commissioning role for other departments, could deliver improvements in the coherence, transparency, and effectiveness of all UK aid. It’s easy for this to seem abstract, but it translates into enabling the UK to make a bigger difference for more of the world’s poorest people within the same budget.
It’s particularly welcome to see the Committee take a hard line on the cross-Government funds, which they worry are not sufficiently focussed on the alleviation of poverty. In restating the importance of DFID oversight for all ODA, the report calls for the share of aid spent through these funds to be frozen until they have made demonstrable improvements. This is important because it is easy for recommendations of improved standards to be empty rhetoric, and it is right that there should be funding implications for failure to make the grade.
British aid helps to transform the lives of some of the most desperate people on earth and helps developing countries to stand on their own two feet. While departments from across Government can bring valuable expertise to this cause, too often this damages its coherence and focus. “Strategic oversight” from the Foreign Office would detract from the humanitarian imperative of aid spending, but DFID, the department established for the purpose of international development, can play a bigger role to help ensure that whichever minister is responsible, British aid is focussed on achieving impact for those who need it.