Aid to Malawi

Back in November 2009 we published Lost Along the Way, an investigation into the cost of DfID's spending. It found that in 2008-09, of the £5.8 billion development programme overseen by DfID, approximately £741 million (13 per cent) had been 'lost along
the way' to the bureaucratic and other internal functions of DfID and its partners (World
Bank, Oxfam, etc).

Not an astronomical sum some might say. Development is a difficult business, with costs that are likely to be high. But our concern was not so much with the cost itself (although it is considerable), but rather with what made up that cost and, even more importantly, what that cost meant in relation to results (progress on the ground).

Our observation that many millions of UK development spending appeared to be going into a massive international aid industry, for little tangible return (economic growth), did not go down well with the Department. Writing in the Yorkshire Post (see here), Mike Foster (the Minister for International Development) dismissed the report, arguing that "the Department for International Development lifts three million people out of poverty each year, yet at the same time we are cutting our own administration costs to three per cent. [...] all development agencies must plan, monitor and report on their projects, so they can see they are achieving real results for the poorest people. [...] DFID has been recognised internationally by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as a "model" development agency whose effectiveness continues to improve."

It's a pity that he didn't read the report more closely, because in truth the complaint was not that DfID itself was too bureaucratic and costly, but rather that the approach DfID uses - based on transferring 'ownership' of development to others, be they governments or NGOs - is questionable. Although the TPA report did not say this explicitly, DfID simply does not plan, monitor and evaluate enough.

In relation to DfID's activities in Malawi, the Public Accounts Committee has come to similar conclusions. In a report released yesterday (Tuesday 27th), the Committee stated explicitly that DfID "needs better measures to assess its contribution to Malawi’s progress, and evidence of the value for money of its spending in Malawi is hard to find." (To read the full report, see here.)

It goes on:

"The Department’s ability to drive improvement in the programmes it funds is limited by weaknesses in the information it has on their implementation and results, and not helped by a weak set of targets for its own performance. The Department has invested in improved data in Malawi, but data on the results or the efficiency of many of the programmes it funds remain weak. There are opportunities for the Department to drive improved value for money from the services it helps to fund in Malawi through quicker and more robust responses to emerging issues and results.

Across its network since 2004 the Department has faced the challenge of disbursing steeply rising amounts of aid with fewer staff to oversee it, as a result of cuts in its administration budget set by the Treasury. The Department has cut staff numbers in Malawi, and we question whether current staffing is sufficient. Areas where the Department needs to raise its game to demonstrate cost-effective aid management require more work at the sharp end, not less."

Overall the report gives the impression (along with the NAO's investigation last year) of a programme creaking under its own deficiencies. It is not an abject failure - £312 million over 6 years does buy some progress - but progress has been limited, suggestions of corruption rife and the prospects for the country little better than they were when DfID's programme begun in earnest.

When challenged by the Public Accounts Committee to account for its performance in Malawi, in particular the efficiency and cost effectiveness of its programmes, DfID simply reverted to general statements of the amounts of money it had spent and bland assurances that these disbursements had had some effect. "What data there is on performance is not reassuring" the Committee notes, with "the Department achiev[ing] only 61% of its own targets."

DfID defended its performance by citing its targets as "dependent on the performance of others." It's a common refrain, one that pops up frequently in the oral evidence given by DfID's Westminster staff. But it's not really good enough when £80 million is due to be spent in Malawi during 2010-11.

A belief that 'spending' is equivalent to progress, combined with an approach that often makes little reference to the interests of the people who pay. A harsh, but increasingly accurate description of the UK's Department for International Development.

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