ICAI: The UK Aid Spending Watchdog

13 Mar 2017

If you’ve been following news on international development lately, you’ll be aware that aid spending outside of DFID is set to rise. By 2020, it is expected that around 30% of the UK’s aid budget will be spent by other government departments.

With this in mind, it is increasingly important that UK aid remains transparent and accountable, no matter who is spending it. Recognising this, the last Government established an independent body to scrutinise aid spending in 2011, called the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI, pronounced ‘i-kye’). Wait, I hear you say, wasn’t there already a committee for aid spending, the International Development Committee? Well, yes and no. While ICAI reports to the IDC, the IDC is only responsible for examining aid spending by DFID whereas ICAI’s remit includes all UK aid spending. It may sound like a new apple gadget, but ICAI’s purpose is to act on behalf of the UK taxpayer to ensure that departments and cross-government funds don’t get a free pass when it comes to spending aid money.

How does it work?

ICAI publishes independent reviews on UK aid spending, with a score (green, amber and red) based on how far programmes or funds achieve value for money and maximise aid impact. The reports set out recommendations for the Government, and the relevant department is required to publish a management response and undergo questioning in Parliament by the IDC Sub-Committee on ICAI. MPs from the Sub-Committee also question ICAI’s commissioners about the report. This can make for quite entertaining viewing should you wish to spend an hour watching Parliament TV (we do).

 

No doubt, ICAI can have considerable sway over the Government where aid fails to meet its objectives. Recent reports have focused on The Cross-Government Prosperity Fund, the impact of DFID’s cash transfer programmes and DFID’s approach to managing exit and transition . In 2013, DFID closed down its TradeMark Southern Africa programme, following ICAI’s report. Although both the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office can also evaluate UK aid across government, neither have a specific remit for aid spending.

However, it is worth noting that the ICAI Board of Commissioners is appointed by the Secretary of State for International Development and DFID conducts a review into its performance every three years. At the last oral questions, Fiona Bruce MP, Chair of the IDC Sub-Committee on ICAI, sought assurances from the Secretary of State that this review would be carried out independently - an issue raised in debates during the passage of the International Development Bill.

Also, in some respects, ICAI’s mandate is more limited than that of the IDC. ICAI must focus its evaluation on the extent to which aid delivers value for money and maximises aid impact, in accordance with the International Development Act 2015. The IDC has more flexibility to examine the expenditure, policy and administration of DFID around broader objectives. Nonetheless, ICAI has been quick to point out that DFID must balance its focus on value for money with equity, particularly when reaching the most marginalised.

Let’s talk about facts

When ministers have faced questions about the transparency of ODA spending (official development assistance) by the CDC, they have repeatedly pointed to ICAI. With UK aid programmes under fire from certain sections of UK politics and media, ICAI’s balanced, independent and impartial reviews are more important than ever.

RESULTS campaigners know more than most that defending 0.7 amid sensational and counter-factual reports on aid spending is no easy task. At times, it feels as though there are two teams attempting to play football against each other on separate pitches. For both aid supporters and sceptics, legitimate questions and debate about UK ODA spending can get left behind.

In this context, ICAI serves an important function by creating a dialogue with the Government based not on politics, but evidence, feedback and lesson learning. It plays a critical role in informing the public and Parliament of both good practice and areas for improvement in the UK’s aid programme. As we approach the triennial review of ICAI’s performance, it’s worth reflecting on this little-known but powerful watchdog that promotes constructive engagement with aid programmes and holds the Government to account for its decisions. 

Ella Hopkins

Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator

Ella Hopkins is the Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator at RESULTS. Ella is interested in ending global poverty, with a particular focus on climate change and gender inequality. She supports parliamentary engagement across all of our issues, from child health to climate risk insurance but still...

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