In 2001, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair described Africa as a “scar on the conscience of the world”. This speech set in motion a sustained effort on the part of the British Government to work harder, and to spend more, on reducing poverty in Africa. In 2004/05, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), spent £883 million on aid to Africa. By 2007/08, DFID spending on programmes in Africa will have risen to £1265 million. Aid to Africa – from the UK, and from other G8 countries – is on an upward trajectory.
With its colonial history, the UK has long been involved in Africa, and began providing aid to Africa in 1929. Since then, aid has been provided for a variety of reasons; indeed, at any one time aid is motivated by multiple reasons. These reasons have included the promotion of British commercial interests, foreign policy and security concerns, and the reduction of poverty in developing countries. Since the coming to power of a Labour Government in 1997 in the UK, the stated reason for providing aid to Africa and developing countries elsewhere has been one of poverty reduction. There is no doubt that aid flows are motivated by security concerns too, but aid – perhaps particularly aid to Africa – is spent to reduce poverty.
The British Government assesses and reviews its spending priorities every two years in an exercise called the Spending Review. Once the Government has made its plans, these plans must be approved by Parliament. Since 1997, DFID has been the lead Department in the Government’s contribution to the fight against global poverty. In addition to administering the UK’s programme of aid, DFID is also responsible for promoting international development across Government, in an effort to ensure that other Departments’ policies do not undermine DFID’s work. A Public Service Agreement – agreed between the Finance Ministry and DFID – sets out DFID’s objectives, along with a series of targets and indicators against which its performance is measured.
The Public Service Agreement identifies 16 countries in Africa, where DFID’s effort is focused. These countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Lesotho – receive 89% of DFID’s bilateral aid spending in Africa. Within Africa, British aid is focused on those countries where a) poverty is a major problem, and b) the government is committed to poverty reduction. Sectorally, much UK aid has in recent years been spent on the health and education sectors, along with governance. The productive sectors, including economic infrastructure, have been relatively neglected. In terms of aid modalities – the ways in which aid is delivered – the UK is delivering more of its aid to Africa as Poverty Reduction Budget Support. In this modality, aid is delivered direct to the budgets of governments which have in place effective systems for financial management, and are seriously committed to poverty reduction. Delivering aid in this way raises challenges in terms of tracking its impact, but it is also expected to deliver benefits in terms of predictability of aid flows, local ownership and domestic accountability.
Domestic accountability is hugely important, both in developing countries and in the developed world. In the UK, the British Government is accountable to the British public – the taxpayers who pay for the aid programme, and the voters who elect the Government – in a range of ways. In terms of formal accountability: the International Development Act sets the legal limits of the aid programme - aid must be spent on poverty reduction; elections provide a blunt instrument of accountability; and Parliament and the National Audit Office play key roles. Despite the UK’s long history of aid, and the range of mechanisms, formal accountability remains patchy. In addition to mechanisms of formal accountability, the UK Government engages informally with a range of organisations – NGOs, faith-based groups, trade unions, academics, the media, think-tanks – both to get their input into policy discussions, and to build a constituency for international development and aid. As DFID moves further in the direction of providing aid through Budget Support, with all its attendant risks, maintaining public support will remain an important challenge.
DFID’s performance, and that of the programme of aid to Africa, is assessed against the Public Service Agreement. Target 1 of the Public Service Agreement is about “progress towards the Millennium Development Goals in 16 key countries in Africa”. DFID reports twice a year on progress towards its Public Service Agreement targets. The most recent report reveals a mixed picture with some progress in terms of reducing poverty, getting more children into school, and reducing child mortality, but with little or no progress on getting girls as well as boys into school, and on tackling maternal mortality. In terms of the British public’s attitudes towards the UK’s programme of aid, there are major concerns about corruption and the possibility of aid being used ineffectively, but nevertheless the public remains largely supportive of the aid programme. It would seem that the British public’s level of concern about poverty in developing countries – a concern and understanding which is nurtured by a very active NGO sector – is greater than its level of concern about the potential wastage of aid.
The UK is at the forefront of international development thinking and practice, with the Department for International Development leading the Government’s efforts. Since 1997, UK aid to Africa – focused on poverty reduction – has played an important role in helping African countries to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. Many challenges remain, but if donors such as Japan are able to make their programmes of aid to Africa as effective as DFID’s seem to be, then – subject to the commitments of African governments – faster progress will certainly be achieved.
Disclaimer: This report has been produced by Dr. Alan Hudson of the Overseas Development Institute for the UFJ Institute. It does not represent a corporate view taken by the Overseas Development Institute