Transparency over the aid budget is vital to restoring trust and the UK’s good standing

Earlier this month, Conservative MP James Cleverly was appointed the new foreign secretary by prime minister Liz Truss, his predecessor in the role. Cleverly's return to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) follows his stint there earlier this year as minister for Europe and North America.

Cleverly, the seventh secretary of state for international development in four years, has formidable challenges ahead. Tackling the UK aid transparency crisis must be one of them.

Following £4.6bn cuts to the UK aid budget in 2020 and 2021, the importance of transparency cannot be understated. It's vital to demonstrate value for money to the British taxpayers - many of whom are struggling with the soaring cost of living - and to ensure we deliver impact where it's needed most, from the looming famine in East Africa to the recent floods in Pakistan and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Cleverly's interest in UK aid transparency remains to be seen, but - to the delight of the international development sector - he will now be supported by the newly created post of minister for development.

The post, which has been given to Vicky Ford, will provide greater focus in the FCDO on international development, peacebuilding and humanitarian support. She may well be the champion for transparency that the sector so desperately needs - and could help restore the UK's global reputation for having one of the most transparent and impactful development programmes.

Cleverly and his team must act fast. UK aid transparency has declined sharply in recent years - with the controversial merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 2020 only exacerbating the problem.

Other contributing factors include the increased spend of the UK aid budget by other government departments - they are allowed to spend parts of the budget because they can bring respective expertise to the UK's development work, such as the Department for Education - as well as the aforementioned UK aid cuts in the last two years. The process of carving out £4.6bn from the budget was, in fact, done so opaquely that accountability and trust in the FCDO were significantly undermined - not to mention the detrimental impact it had on marginalised communities worldwide.

Bond and our members hoped that the UK's new international development strategy, launched in May, would be a chance for the FCDO - then run by Truss - to tackle some of these issues, but it revealed a lack of political leadership, with insufficient focus on transparency.

This was shortly followed by the UK dropping out of the top performers in the Aid Transparency Index for the first time, from ninth place to 16th. Now, almost six months into the financial year, there is no easily accessible information about the FCDO's UK aid budget - and all "non-essential" UK aid spending is frozen.

The latest blow came just a few weeks ago, when the FCDO's new commitment to UK aid transparency was submitted to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) - an international body involving 77 countries that promotes open government - and published as part of the UK's updated National Action Plan 2021-2023. Aid transparency appears in the plan as Commitment 6.

Civil society organisations in the UK tried to engage with the FCDO on this commitment for more than nine months before any headway was made. Bond, Publish What You Fund and Development Initiatives sent initial proposals to the Cabinet Office, which leads this process, in summer 2021.

The FCDO didn't engage with us until this summer, shortly before the deadline to update the action plan. While we were pleased that some engagement occurred, and that we secured the Foreign Office's commitment to UK aid transparency (the UK's last three action plans had none), the absence of political will yielded unambitious results.

This is manifested in three main ways.

Failures of the  government's new action plan

First, it lowers the bar for future commitments while also watering down previous ones. For example, in the 2015 development strategy, the UK government aimed for all its UK aid spending departments to be ranked 'good' or 'very good' in the Aid Transparency Index. We wanted to see a recommitment to this - especially as other government departments, including the Home Office, are seeing their UK aid spend increase exponentially.

However, departments have simply agreed to government-wide action to address the recommendations of the 2020 aid transparency review, which is already long overdue. It's a huge step backwards to exclude the commitment to achieve 'good' or 'very good' in future reviews.

Second, the plan often just reiterates existing transparency and accountability requirements. For example, one action point is to "proactively engage with the recommendations of the ICAI [Independent Commission for Aid Impact] rapid review of Transparency in UK Aid". However, the framework agreement between ICAI and the FCDO already requires the latter to respond to each ICAI review within six weeks of publication - something they have repeatedly failed to do over the last two years.

Third, the well-meaning language on engagement risks being co-opted or becoming a tick-box exercise, without tangible indicators. The action to adopt a "meaningful, inclusive and deliberative approach to engaging with civil society" is welcome, but there needs to be an engagement strategy that sets out how the FCDO will do this (and it needs to be published) - or it could be perceived as hot air. Similarly, the accompanying milestones of quarterly meetings risks becoming performative "engagement".

In the coming weeks and months, the need for transparency and accountability of UK aid is only going to increase - especially as we are now due to have another round of cuts to FCDO programmes.

Cleverly and Ford must jointly demonstrate strong political will and commitment to transparency by agreeing to publish budgets in a timely manner, along with comprehensive and consistent spending information, as well as a strategy for civil society engagement. 

Civil society organisations will continue to work with the FCDO on implementing the action plan - and also hold them to account.

From openDemocracy

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