A report by the National Audit Office released this week has highlighted key deficiencies with our system of distributing foreign aid. Britain currently adheres to the UN target to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid. Formal commitment to this target was entrenched into Parliamentary Statute in 2015 under the coalition government.
One of only six countries to meet the target, Britain has a larger economy than each of these other states combined. The result of this is a vast aid budget which currently stands at £13 billion, and is projected to rise to £16.3 billion in 2021. David Cameron claimed in 2015 that these funds would enable Britain to become a world leader in the ‘soft power’ fight against ISIL in fragile states, and a key player in enabling the resolution of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis.
Unsurprisingly, this budget has not been spent as efficiently as one might have hoped. The National Audit Office (NAO) has said that it is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of these funds at achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They also claim that there are a ‘number of gaps in responsibility and accountability’ preventing any evaluation of the use of this money for international aid.
The report highlighted a number of shortcomings with oversight of DFiD’s budget. Last year nearly half of government departments to receive money from the international aid budget faced a desperate scramble to achieve the UN target. Five departments spent over half of their annual allocation in the final quarter of 2016, struggling to find causes on which to deplete the funds. There are also deeper problems within departments, with the NAO report alleging that most departments accepted that they did not have sufficiently trained staff with which to handle the budget.
This has inevitably led to a waste of taxpayers’ money far from home, with the UK government renowned for donating £5m to Yegna, dubbed the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’, in 2016. The Times reported in December that £9 billion of taxpayers' money has also been transferred into 219 different World Bank trust funds in the last five years, with Britain having been charged £243m in ‘administration fees’ in the process.
This appalling waste hinders the UK’s ability to deal with genuine global crises: like preventing 8.7 million people across the globe from slipping into starvation, or vaccinating over 80 million children in Africa against life threatening diseases. It is clear that the mantra of foreign aid spending has to change from one focussed upon meeting spending targets to one based only on making quantifiable differences to development in the Third World.