More than a quarter of UK overseas aid will be spent by ministries other than the Department for International Development (DfiD) by 2019/20 – according to figures that have sparked renewed concern about changes to Britain’s aid policy.
The aid budget has long been eyed by officials in other overstretched departments, including the defence ministry, which has been involved in a campaign to draw millions from DfID by suggesting that its budget be used to pay for flights on military aircraft, some navy patrols and body armour.
DfID has now released figures showing that the proportion of overseas development assistance (ODA) estimated to be spent by other departments will rise from 18% this year to 26% in 2019/20.
The figures were provided Rory Stewart, a junior DfID minister, in answer to a parliamentary question, and are based on the most recent expectations of ODA spending in the years ahead.
This comes against the backdrop of warnings by the new DfID secretary, Priti Patel, that she plans a radical shake-up of the way the aid budget is spent and managed, and that her approach will be based on “core Conservative principles”.
Members of the international development committee are to press DfID’s permanent secretary later this year for a breakdown of which other departments are expected to spend the aid money.
Stephen Doughty, an opposition Labour member on the committee and the MP who lodged the parliamentary question, said: “This would be the first time that the amount of official development assistance spent by departments other than DfID is more than quarter.
“It’s worrying because other departments are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and quality checks as DfID, but it also suggests that there are increasingly blurred lines between the use of aid for poverty reduction and other purposes. There is clearly an overlap between certain aspects of work on security and climate change but such a significant shift suggests this is more about a political agenda to satisfy other ministers who have designs on DfID’s budget.”
Mark Lowcock, DfID’s permanent secretary, told the committee last week that internationally set rules governed what counted as aid, and that activities such as peacekeeping could count as such.
“Whether it passes through the MoD budget or the FCO budget or our budget is irrelevant to whether it scores as aid or not,” he added.
“The rules were broadened very slightly at the beginning of this year, because there was a wide agreement that there are some things that should appropriately be scored as development assistance, like training the military on human rights and sexual crime, which was not being scored as aid and was creating a perverse incentive. Both the MoD and we are doing more of that, but it only scores as aid because it fits within the rules.”
Saira O’Mallie, interim UK Director of the ONE Campaign, said: “British taxpayers must be assured that any department spending UK aid will adopt the same high standards of transparency as DfID, with a focus on the poorest countries.
“Without that guarantee we would exercise caution because ODA’s primary purpose is to tackle extreme poverty. Our aid budget cannot be diverted to countries or areas solely for our strategic interests.
“DfID spending is among the most transparent in the world, while the MoD and FCO have previously come under fire, having ranked poorly by international standards. With more aid being spent outside DfID it’s crucial that other departments raise their standards as a matter of urgency if we want to continue being a world leader in supporting the world’s poorest.”