Aid analysts have welcomed some of the international development priorities of Britain’s new coalition government, particularly the commitment to stick to the previous government’s pledge to boost aid spending to 0.7 percent of national income by 2013. But they also worry that the independence and impartiality of aid may be eroded under a new “coherence” push.
With the economy flailing and a budget deficit of US$226 billion (£156 billion at end-May 2010), the new government’s commitment not to cut aid - if met - while making severe cuts elsewhere, “will be a clear sign that in an economic downturn, the UK will not turn its back on the poorest people globally”, Alison Evans, director of the UK Overseas Development Institute, told IRIN.
The new Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, stressed accountability and transparency of aid, alongside “radical steps” to use the private sector more effectively to create wealth, in a 3 June speech to UK aid community representatives.
He has also pushed reducing maternal and child mortality and empowering women, and continued support to education and healthcare, with malaria singled out for $732 million a year until 2015.
However, there was no significant discussion of climate-change funding in developing countries, which had featured strongly in pre-election policy papers and debates.
On accountability, Mitchell said: “Our protected aid budget imposes a double duty to ensure that for every pound of taxpayers’ money we spend, we demonstrate 100 pence of value.”
The government will set up an independent aid watchdog to monitor spending and ensure aid is targeted to projects that deliver results, as well as a UK Aid Transparency Guarantee.
“Independent evaluation of British aid is absolutely crucial,” said Mitchell. “There is something a bit too cosy and self-serving about internal evaluation… What did the money achieve? What change resulted from it? How were lives made better?”
Such evaluations will extend to the Department for International Development’s (DFID) multilateral aid recipients such as the UN and World Bank.
Given the relative lack of scrutiny in the largely unregulated international development sector, “if it [an independent watchdog] improves accountability, it’s a good thing”, Kathleen Chapman, Oxfam’s head of UK government relations, told IRIN.
Accountability to the poor
But the government must balance accountability to UK taxpayers and parliament with accountability to recipients, stressed Karin Christiansen, head of NGO Publish What You Fund, and Save the Children’s development director, Patrick Watt.
“Results should not just be number of babies saved,” said Christiansen. “We need a more realistic conversation about what results of aid are. The best results may be improving the effectiveness of countries at their own tax spending, for instance.”
And transparency goes beyond publishing information on websites, stressed Owen Barder, director of Aidinfo, at an aid effectiveness conference earlier this year. Transparency involves a dialogue with potential beneficiaries about what their and donors’ aid priorities are, and whether aid pledged is actually getting through.
To make aid more effective Mitchell proposes to redirect £100 million of aid from low-priority or poor-performing projects to programmes with a better success rate.
Private sector push
“We are aiming to take a change of approach, a fundamental change that empowers people, that creates and sustains wealth rather than simply redistributing it,” Mitchell said. “…We will champion a trading system that is free, open and fair, rather than one that pursues an isolationist policy and limits market opportunities.”
The push has attracted overall support from aid experts, although Chapman said basic services, such as health and education, were best delivered by a more efficient public sector.
Alongside private sector partners, the coalition stresses the need to bring the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and DFID more closely together.
“21st century development is a complex tapestry of trade, investment and enterprise, climate change, economic growth, debt relief, financial services, intellectual property and advancing new technologies,” Mitchell said. Dealing with such issues, particularly in fragile states, requires “pulling together the strands of development, defence and diplomacy…that is why the Prime Minister set up the National Security Council to take a cohesive… approach.”
The National Security Council is a new body that aims to tackle security internally and abroad.
The coherence agenda was espoused by the previous government, but UK-based Portland consultants expect more aid under this government to be channelled through the Foreign Office, used to fund the National Security Council, and to support military-humanitarian bodies such as stabilization and reconstruction forces in Afghanistan.
Any new, more “coherent” approach to fragile states such as Afghanistan must not be used as a blueprint for intervention in all failed states, warns Save the Children’s Watt. “The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is very different, for instance… Afghanistan cannot end up by default shaping the government’s overall approach to fragile states and conflict-affected countries as security objectives could unduly influence other development interventions.
“We’d be concerned by any long-term trend in reduction of overseas development aid going to DFID,” he continued. “We’ve seen this taken to an extreme in the US where one-third of USAID money goes through the State Department or Pentagon. The  International Development Act, which requires aid to be poverty focused, only applies to DFID aid.”
Oxfam too, has worries. “We’ll push for the government to avoid militarizing aid,” said Chapman. “The top message needs to be that aid is focused on people who most need it.”
One area where most agree aid is crucial is to bring down maternal and child mortality rates – a prominent theme for DFID under the new government. The Millennium Development Goal to reduce by three-quarters the number of women dying in childbirth is way off-track, as are many MDGs where discrimination against women and girls is most profound, said the ODI’s Evans.
Prime Minister David Cameron discussed maternal mortality with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on 3 June, before its inclusion in the agenda of the upcoming G8 leaders summit in Canada.
Aid workers hope this is a sign that the aid agenda under Cameron will continue to enjoy the prominent role it had under Gordon Brown, with his office and the Cabinet pushing development issues.
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