THE BLOG

The Trouble With Aid

03/11/2014 16:25 GMT | Updated 31/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The report published today that the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) is doing little to tackle corruption will, I suspect, not come as a huge surprise to many people who've worked on a DfID funded project.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) who carried out the report, concluded that DfID "has little understanding of what is and is not working" in its anti-corruption efforts and that it has not "developed an equal approach to the challenge." It's a damning report, the danger of which will be to further polarise the popular debate around international aid and fuel the argument that the UK's sizeable contribution to international development is money mis-spent.

But the problem - as most of us instinctively know - isn't with aid per se; the problem is with the way DfID manage it.

I worked on a DfID funded project for two years between 2009 and 2011. The project - run by BBC Media Action and based in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka - was set up to help young people learn English through TV programmes and lessons accessed via their mobile phones. The rationale was that a practical comprehension of English would make young people more employable and thereby help improve the Bangladeshi economy.

During my time on the project, I witnessed multiple instances of financial mismanagement, as well as a 'creative' approach to reporting results in order exaggerate the project's impact and success. Concerns raised with my bosses at BBC Media Action went largely ignored. Eventually I took those concerns to the DfID managers responsible for commissioning, overseeing and auditing the project. I'd done so, I thought, in confidence. But rather than investigate those concerns, DfID merely reported back to my BBC bosses that I'd spoken out and a lid was very firmly placed on the issues. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I left BBC Media Action soon after.

The current problem with aid stems from David Cameron's insistence back in 2012 on meeting the 0.7% GNI aid target by the end of 2013. Few people at the time thought it an economically sound move. Plenty of people at DfID cautioned against it. Because if you throw money at anything - not least international development - without due diligence and preparation, money is bound to get wasted. It will fall through the cracks as people desperately try to meet their targets in spending it. And some of those cracks will be corrupt. It is - as most development economists will tell you - not a strategic or productive way to spend billions of pounds.

But the problems also lie within DfID itself, and their third-party agencies too. There is very little incentive for any DfID employee to investigate issues on projects for which they are responsible: projects they've championed, signed off, won budgets for and on which their next promotion may be dependent. Why would any DfID employee voluntarily hold up their hands to acknowledge they've taken their eye off the ball to such an extent that money's cascading through the wrong people's hands? Or that they've employed inadequate third parties who've ignored or even facilitated financial mismanagement?

The same is true for the third-party agencies DfID employs and the army of consultants involved in overseeing them: it's not in any of their interests to admit when things have gone wrong since their funding for future projects - and their jobs - depend on delivering the results they've promised without any scandal along the way.

To some extent, one can sympathise with DfID's position: the rate at which the Tories have been scrabbling to meet the 0.7% target make vigilant auditing and accountability nigh-on impossible: in the rush to award £12 billion a year - either to the ministries of foreign governments or third-party projects - the victim is due diligence, both in assessing a project's efficacy at the outset, managing it while it is ongoing and evaluating its results.

The ICAI was, of course, set up to tackle much of this. Their latest report suggests there is some way to go. It seems to me that in order to make the ICAI truly effective, their powers need to be extended twofold. Firstly, they should - much like Ofsted - be at liberty to spot-check a DfID project at any time: to scrutinise the accounts and assess interim results to ascertain whether a project is on track and corruption-free. Secondly, the ICAI should act as an ombudsmen for concerns about mismanagement of DfID funds, whether those issues are raised directly by DfID employees or by third party contractors. When we're talking about £12 billion pounds of UK tax payer's money, it seems absurd that no independent body exists to assess legitimate concerns regarding potential financial mismanagement.

I suspect most of us want to see an effective international aid programme. But only by addressing some of the institutional processes by which money is awarded and projects assessed are we likely to feel as confident as we ought that British international aid is making the difference it should, and difference it could.