DfID shows that throwing money at a problem doesn’t work

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s (ICAI) review of DfID’s security and justice (S&J) programmes is damning. Overall it grades the work undertaken as amber-red in a traffic light scale where red indicates poor effectiveness and value for money.  

This report is an important touchstone for judging the merits of the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on foreign aid. Is taxpayers’ cash being spent well, does it reach those who it is intended for and most crucially does it produce meaningful change that makes these people’s lives better?

This review examined the S&J programmes in ten countries (such as Malawi and Bangladesh) with particular focus on the outcomes for women and girls. Worryingly, despite £95 million of taxpayer’s money being thrown at these programmes, no single output criteria (including the objectives, delivery and impact) receives anything other than an amber-red score.

Security and justice are clearly noble development goals. The UK could be at the forefront of such programmes by deploying legal expertise and sharing best practice. Yet this appears to be an opportunity missed thus far.

The review argues that there is “no overarching strategy” and “the use of empirical evidence and contextual analysis is often weak and poorly linked to programme designs”. For example, UK S&J experts have little confidence in the approach to policing reform taken by DfID. The ICAI writes that “DfID invests in internal affairs and professional standards units for police… without much evidence that this contributes to improved police behaviour”. 

Of the ten countries studied, community policing training was the only universal activity and policing programmes make up a large part of total operations which have had “limited achievement”.  In Bangladesh there has been a focus on the creation of ‘model’ police stations, where innovations and new operating procedures can be demonstrated leading to more widespread roll-out. However despite 101 such new police stations, in Bangladesh, the proportion of citizens who have been a victim of crime has doubled to 48 per cent and confidence in the police has fallen three percentage points.

The review says that DfID does not adjust to tackle local issues or practical challenges. Instead, there is a menu of conventional activities from which DfID decides its programmes with very little context-dependent flexibility. An example is the increasing rates of urbanisation in some African nations which creates very different challenges to rural S&J. Suddenly, issues such as housing tenure become much more significant, and the review suggests that the programme’s operators struggle to get out of their comfort zone when it comes to activity development.

There was praise for the programme to support Justine Greening’s New Strategic Vision for Women and Girls. Here, the issue of violence against women has been clearly identified and aid providers have subsequently worked backwards from this problem to establish a solution. This approach has provided a more practical orientation but it is not being replicated.

There appears to be little effort by DfID to change its processes to ensure better S&J outcomes. There is no “active learning approach to the portfolio and [DfID] is repeating approaches with a poor track record of results”.  One of the review’s recommendations for reforming S&J aid is to develop a more focussed and realistic strategy that targets individual issues and challenges. It is woeful that this basic point has to be made after so much of taxpayers’ money has been spent.

These implementation problems extend beyond pure programme delivery, but also to the deliverers. Often there are “NGO’s [who] may offer greater local knowledge and legitimacy [than the current provider]… but often find it difficult to compete in procurement processes”. If DfID does not use the best provider it is unsurprising that there is such strong criticism in the ICAI’s review.

Instead there seems to be an overreliance on inputs which justify continued activity – and it is important to remember that the programme’s input is £95 million of UK taxpayers’ money which is being spent badly and with very little accountability.

The UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid is wrongheaded and especially so when there are such grave doubts about the effectiveness of what we currently spend. This review only serves to prove that throwing money at a foreign aid problem does not guarantee a solution.