The UK is spending billions of pounds on aid to fragile states but the programme has been ramped up too quickly, without proper scrutiny, and is not yet making a real difference, a government watchdog has warned.
“The programme performs relatively poorly overall … for effectiveness and value for money. Significant improvements should be made,” the report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai) said. Icai rated the Department for International Development (DfID)’s work in fragile states as amber-red, which is the watchdog’s second-lowest rating.
DfID has committed to spending 30% of its budget in fragile states, splashing out£3.4bn on state-building, health and education in 28 countries that have been affected by conflict and humanitarian disasters, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, from 2014-15. This is a £1.8bn increase since 2012.
But DfID’s efforts need “coherent guidance” and are plagued by poor coordination between different DfID projects in the same country, according to Icai.
“We’ve seen some red [warning signs] in terms of the readiness of the offices of DfID to prepare for the scale of funding that has suddenly come through their doors and the skills they need to oversee that funding effectively,” said Mark Foster, a commissioner at Icai and author of the report.
“There’s often a tendency to define a strategy with a large amount of money to it and then go and try and find out how you’re actually going to spend that money. One of our major recommendations here is to think about the art of the possible – bring that realism into your budgeting and planning process and then spend against those realistic plans.”
The department must also reduce its reliance on outside agencies, Icai said – DfID channelled half of the £165m it budgeted for Congo into the UN and the World Bank.
Icai said: “Our primary concern is that the portfolio of programmes and interventions in each DfID priority state, fuelled by the very substantial increase in funding, is not yet on a clear trajectory to make a real difference to fragile and conflict states, even if individual programmes are delivering basic services on the ground.”
DfID’s projects in fragile states lack a strong presence on the ground and are let down by staff who don’t have language skills or cultural awareness, according to the report. In DfID’s project to reform Congo’s police force, “the original design of the programme revealed limited understanding of how police institutions operate in a French/Belgian model; and a key term – accountability – had no direct French translation and meant little to Congolese stakeholders,” the report said.
Graham Ward, Icai’s chief commissioner, said: “Transformative impact in fragile states will take a generation to achieve and is dependent upon development of in-country state capacity. This was insufficiently recognised at the start of scaling-up, where increased funding was directly linked to assumed greater impact.”
DfID has previously been warned that its strategy in fragile states will take time to bear fruit, as renewed fighting and corruption can reverse development gains.
Mary Creagh, Labour’s shadow development secretary, said there was a need to prioritise support for people in fragile states, but criticised what she called a “target-driven culture in DfID”, saying it “failed to focus on the long term processes of peacebuilding and nation-building”.
A DfID spokesman said: “Icai recognises that despite the challenges of working in the most dangerous places in the world, we are now acknowledged as a global leader in this field. The UK set ambitious targets in 2010 and we are now seeing results. From supporting female provincial councillors in Afghanistan to training government officials in districts liberated from al-Shabaab in Somalia, our work in fragile states is improving millions of lives and creating a safer world.”