Who holds the UK government to account for its contribution to development in poorer countries?
The International Development Committee should commission a study to investigate how the UK’s non-aid policies impact the development prospects of poor people and societies overseas.
In addition to voluntary scrutiny by civil society and the media, two statutory institutions in the United Kingdom monitor the country’s official contribution to overseas development: parliament mainly through its International Development Select Committee (IDC), and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
The former has been in operation since 1997, one of a number of standing parliamentary committees set up to “shadow” departments of state. Through focused inquiries, and review of policy and legislative proposals, it aims to shine a bright light on the government’s aid instruments – mainly those administered by the Department for International Development (DFID). The IDC is made up of 11 MPs, currently drawn from the three main parties. As with other select committees, it can call ministers and civil servants to explain and justify proposed and actual policy, and make recommendations accordingly. Ministers are expected to respond to its findings within 60 days.
The ICAI is a much newer beast. It was established by Andrew Mitchell – then Secretary of State for international development – immediately after the 2010 election, as a mechanism to counter what he rightly saw as a tendency to flabbiness which had developed within DFID. I welcomed this at the time, as I’d long thought that a high spending department like DFID with its broad, long-term and hard-to-measure objectives needed better scrutiny than it was getting from parliament. The ICAI was set up with a small office in Whitehall under the oversight of four independent commissioners, with a commendably lean staffing model; commissioning a small number of focused and directed inquiries every year, producing reports to which DFID (or any other department disbursing overseas aid) must respond, and must explain how it will (or why it declines to) implement any of the ICAI’s recommendations.
For a number of reasons, the ICAI appears to have more teeth than the IDC. A kind of cosiness has developed between the IDC and DFID, perhaps because the committee attracts MPs who are broadly sympathetic to the overseas aid enterprise as it has been defined over the past few years, rather than sceptics; and perhaps because other committees are more attractive to ambitious and publicity-seeking MPs wanting to create controversy. The IDC was born as DFID’s twin in 1997, and has accompanied DFID as the latter has grown ever larger over the years: in a way, the department and the IDC have kind of grown up together and are two pillars of the post-1997 overseas aid establishment. I have the overall impression that the most the IDC can do is ask good questions and suggest small policy tweaks, even when it is not convinced by DFID’s approach. Its role is of course not much helped by the rather binary role of the UK media, most of which is either for or against development aid, and without much appetite for nuance or subtlety.
The ICAI by contrast was born at a time of recession when the aid budget was under shrill media attack, which it was in some respects Mitchell’s attempt to pre-empt. Its approach is by mandate and nature more focused and forensic than that of the IDC. Its commissioners and staff seem to have been well-picked: at least they appear to understand aid and development in the round, but are not part of the aid establishment, and can thus ask the right questions. Already they have produced a number of well-written and robust reports, in which they combine an understanding of the nuanced nature of aid and development, with a nevertheless very simple “traffic lights” approach to their findings, pointing out what is and isn’t working well.
Aid, or development?
It’s obvious, of course, that external aid is only one – and by no means the most important – factor in a country’s development. Other important factors include local and international business investment and activity, politics, policies and laws, civil society, education, social capital, international connections including trade, and the legitimacy and effectiveness of institutions. So any review of how aid works has to include an analysis of how it interacts with – enhancing or diminishing – these factors – some of which are anyway explicitly targeted for improvement by the UK’s aid programmes. So far, so good. Both the IDC and the ICAI can do this.
But there is a wider point of great relevance to the scrutiny of the UK government’s contribution to the development of other countries. Especially when that government is publicly committed to supporting overseas development. The issue is that, whatever its overseas aid budget, the government’s other (non-aid) policy positions also impact significantly on development progress elsewhere. I am not making a new point here so won’t illustrate in massive detail, but just to give a few well known examples:
- The hiring by the UK’s National Health Service of health professionals, especially nurses, from developing countries where well-trained and effective health professionals are already far too rare. By recruiting them to work in the UK we provide them with professional and financial opportunity, and improve the health of people in the UK, while reducing the effectiveness of health service provision and outcomes in the countries from which they hail. On the face of, a negative contribution to overseas development.
- The continued laundering through the UK’s property and other investment markets of ill-gotten gains from developing countries, provides opportunities for those misusing public monies in developing contexts to get away with it, and to avoid paying taxes and thus contributing to development in their home country.
- The closing down of international banking for Somalia expatriates makes it that much harder for Somalis living abroad to remit funds to their families back home, and to conduct business transactions.
- Through its active membership of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the UK effectively operates a form of protectionism, subsidising EU farmers and thus skewing the market against imports from poorer countries.
- By its homeland security policies, not to mention its overseas military adventures, the UK undermines human security in many poor countries.
- By its climate change mitigation policies, such as an insistence on biofuels, some of which are now grown on land from which poor farmers have been displaced, and by its own production of carbon pollution, the UK impacts the lives, livelihoods and security of people in developing countries.
- By its absurd insistence on waging war on drugs, rather than accepting that this policy will never work, the UK enables the operation of violent drug gangs which undermine the governance and safety of millions of people in developing countries.
Of course it is by no means all negative. In addition to good outcomes from its overseas aid programmes, the UK also supports and enables development in many other ways: for example by its support of international governance through the UN and other bodies, by the relatively enlightened approach of many UK-based and -regulated international companies, and by its anti-corruption policies, to name but three.
I am not arguing here for any specific change in UK government policy on any of these issues. Indeed, each of them represents the tip of an iceberg made up of a complex and nuanced network of inter-connected issues to which there no easy and obvious solution. I simply cite them as but a few among the manifold ways in which the government’s policies make a difference to the development prospects of people living far away.
This brings me to my main, final and simple point, which is that the bodies which scrutinise government policy and practice ought to look much more widely than at its official aid programme, if they are to make informed judgements about the effectiveness of government’s policy to support development in poorer countries.
As far as I can see, ICAI’s mandate is a narrow one: it was set up to evaluate the impact of the UK’s overseas development aid. That is a pity, because it has shown that it combines the mandate and approach to shine a powerful forensic light on the issues which it investigates.
So we must look to the IDC to open up the broader line of inquiry which this analysis suggests: into to the various other ways in which UK government policy and actions impact the development prospects of people far away, whether for good or ill. Perhaps in so doing, the IDC should borrow a leaf from ICAI’s book, and commission a strong, analytical report on the topic, rather than simply asking for a series of submissions and answers to questions from a range of witnesses, which often seems to lead to a rather diffuse and unfocussed report.