The Committee is aware of the excellent reputation of UK aid around the world. This is clearly a result of the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA); the UK’s respect for the rules-based international consensus and focus on the poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalised people in the world; and the Department for International Development’s (DFID’s) globally acknowledged expertise and professionalism built up over two decades as a standalone development agency. It is this approach—the trust it inspires and the example it sets—that underpins the UK’s global leadership in many development-related areas and generates the influence—the ‘soft power’—so prized by the Government.
When this inquiry was launched in March 2020, the Government had just started its Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review. The Review was intended to be a root and branch examination of the UK’s international policy and its role in the world. The Review’s remit includes consideration of the necessary reforms to Government systems and structures to achieve the Review’s goals. There was speculation, but no consultation outside Whitehall, that reforms under consideration included ‘machinery of government’ changes that could see DFID’s functions and resources folded into the Foreign Office, a return to the pre-1997 position.
Our inquiry was intended to help inform the process and findings of that Review. However, at around the same time as the launch of this work, the scale and threat of the COVID-19 pandemic were becoming apparent. The potential socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on the world have yet fully to emerge, but they are likely to be substantial and long-lasting. In oral evidence, the Secretary of State for International Development told us that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo 30 years of international development work, with a bleak outlook for the world’s poorest.
On 9 April 2020, the Government wrote to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development select committees, announcing that work on the Integrated Review was to be paused across Whitehall to enable the Government to focus upon COVID-19. Work on the Review will resume once the situation becomes clearer. Against the background of this pause, the Committee is using the opportunity to publish an interim report setting out our provisional conclusions and recommendations on the effectiveness of UK aid and the lessons that can be drawn for its administration in the future. On current plans, this report will be followed by final conclusions before summer recess 2020.
Our evidence is clear that UK aid has made major contributions to global development goals. DFID has a high international standing, built up over many years, for its excellence in managing and delivering development assistance; and its transparency and effectiveness. Any reforms to current government systems and structures would potentially impact the fundamentals of what UK aid is spent on, who spends it most effectively, and ultimately undermine our reputation and influence overseas as a ‘development superpower’.
This Committee advocates strongly for the retention of the current standalone Ministry of State model for international development, with a Cabinet level Minister. If the Government should decide to make significant changes to current systems and structures for administering UK aid, the Government should, as a minimum, present a statement to Parliament setting out an evidence-led rationale for any change; quantifying expected costs and how intended benefits justify the costs; and showing how both will be measured and controlled.
Published: 9 June 2020