The past year has seen a barrage of media attacks on overseas aid, portraying it as badly spent, wasteful or ineffective. In just one recent example, an indignant Sun reported how Britain's national security chief has launched a new review of overseas aid "to stop so much taxpayers' cash being wasted".
The review includes the suspension of some aid programmes at the Foreign Office and greater scrutiny of others. And quite right too, we say. Christian Aid has been calling for increases in aid spent by some government departments to be frozen until it is clear they can spend aid as transparently as the UK's specialist Department for International Development does.
The review follows a highly critical report by the National Audit Office (NAO). This report affirmed that DFID is a world leader when it comes to transparency and efficiency of aid spending. But, it warned that other government departments with newer aid budgets, like the Foreign Office, are falling short and insufficiently transparent for there to be confidence that their spending is addressing poverty. Many members of the public are not even aware that different government departments such as the Foreign office or the Ministry of Defence have an aid budget.
When the Conservative government recently reaffirmed its commitment to maintain spending of 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, Christian Aid and many other leading charities strongly welcomed the pledge. This remains our position. So why are we also now cheering at the idea of freezing of some aid. Surely this sounds contradictory?
But, no. It is not. Because we want to see all aid money spent effectively on its primary purpose of addressing poverty.
Let me be clear. We have very good reason to be proud of UK aid. Over the past couple of decades targeted aid spending has contributed to halving child mortality - an incredible achievement. Aid has also played a vital role in bringing safe drinking water to hundreds of millions of people, cutting needless death and disease; as well as putting millions of kids into school. DFID spending and expertise helped stem the deadly Ebola virus. And today UK aid is providing communities hit by drought in East Africa and those hit by the deadly floods across South Asia which have affected more than 41 million people.
Aid must also put in place long-term structural solutions to poverty. So, we welcome DFID funding to local groups in countries such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone, that are using people power to demand their own governments invest in health and education for their own citizens as well as monitor government spending to tackle corruption. We also welcome DFID's support to rural communities affected by the impacts of climate change to adapt and diversify their farming practices in ways that make them less vulnerable to weather and price fluctuations and more able to build a future free of poverty and aid dependency. For example, DFID funding in Ethiopia and Malawi is helping to provide scientific weather forecasts that help farmers plan, prepare and adapt so they remain resilient in the face of droughts.
We also welcome aid programmes that boost the confidence and voices of women and girls living in poverty, who are often subject to further marginalisation and violence simply because of their gender. The much maligned 'Ethiopian Spice Girls' initiative sought to do just that and had been praised for its positive impact, before the well-publicised decision to cut it following some negative press coverage. DFID needs to be braver about defending what works in the face of some of the more ill-informed aid bashing from some media outlets.
DFID is not perfect and charities like Christian Aid regularly engage in robust conversations with DFID to further improve the quality of aid spending. It is also held accountable by a dedicated parliamentary select committee and by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). Such scrutiny is facilitated through the high standards of transparency that DFID upholds, standards that the UK tax payers are absolutely entitled to expect. But, increasingly the Government is choosing to channel aid through other government departments - by 2020 it plans to spend a third of British Aid in this way.
One of the Foreign Office funds, the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), has the potential to fund some very important peace-building activities, an essential prerequisite for a life free of poverty for so many currently living in conflict zones. However, January's report from the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy highlighted that the CSSF, "lacks political leadership and accountability", and that "parliament does not have sufficient access to the information that we need effectively to scrutinise the CSSF".
Equally worrying, the Prosperity Fund - a fund managed by the National Security Council, with the Foreign Office being its biggest spender - is dedicated to promoting economic development and welfare, but when initially assessed by ICAI was found unable to demonstrate "a sufficient assurance as to a likelihood of poverty reduction".
The International Development Act clearly states that aid spent by DFID must be used to address poverty overseas. For aid to be real aid it must retain this focus. And it must always be invested with the highest levels of transparency and accountability.
As aid is increasingly channelled through other departments the government needs to confirm that the Act applies to these departments too. And any department tasked with an aid budget must be held fully accountable to use aid for its intended purpose - tackling poverty.Suggest a correction