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UK aid stats show lessons ministers can learn from DFID’s new boss

Last week saw Penny Mordaunt, DFID’s new Secretary of State, ensure ongoing UK support for Rohingya minority refugees affected by the displacement in Myanmar, during her visit to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

DFID pledged an additional £12 million UK aid (bringing the UK’s total support to £59 million) to ensure continued international support in the Rohingya crisis. If they hadn’t, the cash would have run out in February 2018, putting thousands of lives at risk. (For more insights into just how important this is, read the harrowing individual testimonies of Rohingya children gathered by Save the Children.)

As one of her first official acts as the new DFID lead, this reemphasises both Penny Mordaunt’s personal commitment to proving Britain can be proud of its aid, and how effective DFID aid is: Flexible enough to step into crises where it is needed most, targeted at the most vulnerable and marginalised people, supporting impactful change on the ground, and with the potential to rally other key donors.

That’s why it was so encouraging that the recently released statistics on DFID’s aid spending for 2016 show that total UK aid increased by 10% (in line with the national income calculations), meaning the UK is still meeting the international commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development.

The biggest difference to the year before, among other important trends of UK aid spending, is that an increasing amount of UK aid is now being channelled through cross-government aid funds and government departments other than DFID. DFID still holds the lion’s share of UK aid (nearly 74%), but this is significantly lower than before, with other stakeholders now having seen an increase of 48% in their aid income (and becoming responsible for £3.5 billion in total). This can be viewed as positive, as it brings wider expertise into development. At the same time, this change requires stronger UK action on aid transparency, impact on the ground and coherence of cross government delivery – to mitigate against the risk of weakening UK aid spending to something lower than DFID’s exceptionally high standards.

UK aid makes a major difference to children’s lives – by supporting strong health systems, reliable humanitarian action during times of hardship, such as the Rohingya crisis, and quality education. That’s why we monitor closely what happens to sectoral spending on education, health, clean water and humanitarian engagement; and were pleased to see that overall UK aid spending on these sectors has remained stable at nearly 26%. There is, however, a wide discrepancy in how well different parts of government are doing. Save the Children’s calculations suggest non-DFID departments only spend around 6% of their aid on these key sectors, compared to 33% of DFID spend.

Also, while DFID focuses on the poorest countries and most marginalised communities, cross-government aid funds predominantly target emerging markets and middle-income countries, e.g. with the Prosperity Fund having major projects with China. Aid to least-developed countries has already dropped this year, so this is an important trend to watch.

To ensure ongoing UK leadership on the aid front and strong results on the ground, it is crucial to keep aid focused on development and poverty reduction – this is how it can make the biggest difference – and adhering to high effectiveness and transparency standards, no matter which department spends it, as Save the Children recommends in Next Generation Aid.

This is how Britain can remain proud of our aid spending and engagement in the world. There is strong academic evidence that – if well spent – UK aid really works and makes a difference. The Project for Modern Democracy’s new report on development aid shows that aid has a long-term positive effect on growth and poverty reduction, if allocated and delivered in a transparent, coherent and predictable way. Gathered evidence and research for the study showed that effective aid can add as much as 1.5 % to partner countries’ annual growth. Aid also brings down child mortality, facilitates better and longer education, and increases life expectancies.

As we approach what is looking to be another bleak Christmas for children caught up in conflict, this week’s new research is a good reminder that British leadership can make a big difference, and that other departments would do well to follow DFID’s lead.

We’re currently fundraising for children caught up in conflict across Myanmar, Yemen and Syria. Please show your support by donating today.

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