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Should DEFRA have a bigger role in UK aid?

The UK Aid Strategy, published in 2015, made it a stated goal of the Government to increase the proportion of the aid budget spent by departments other than DFID, to reach 30% of the total by 2020. In a climate of restricted spending, this meant that all departments could access the ringfenced commitment to international development, but risked pitting individual departmental objectives against the core objective of UK aid – alleviating poverty and suffering.

Against this backdrop, proposals have often been made for ways in which other departments could make use of a bigger chunk of the aid budget, and this week’s report from the Conservative Environment Network and Bright Blue was the latest. Saving Global Nature argues that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) should administer at least 10% of all UK ODA by 2025, to increase the UK’s contribution to global conservation efforts.

It’s legitimate to ask if this is what aid is for. The report does not suggest changing or breaking the internationally agreed OECD DAC rules, which govern the definition of aid, and it’s right that conservation is considered in aid decision-making – environmental sustainability is vital to development, and the world’s poorest people have a disproportionally acute reliance on their natural surroundings, so its impact on poverty is direct. However, it cannot be said that the poverty alleviation is the primary goal of conservation. The cross-party International Development Committee reiterated in its report this month that poverty must be the core focus of UK aid, and the Government is rightly committed to this.

The report argues that this new facility would be funded by reducing British contributions to multilateral funds. However, these funds represent a crucial way of contributing to global responses and create economies of scale by pooling resources. Working in partnership through multilaterals, aid donors can have phenomenal impact – GAVI, the vaccines alliance, of which the UK is a key funder, has immunised 640 million children since 2000, while the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria saved 10 million lives between 2012 and 2016. The UK’s contributions to such organisations are not just convenient accounting tricks, as the report suggests, but a vital part of the impact we can achieve.

Critically, humanitarian funding appeals are dangerously underfunded already, so reducing UK contributions would significantly exacerbate the level of need. The total required to meet global humanitarian needs is higher now than at any point in the last decade, while the UN has a 68% funding shortfall across its responses. The world’s other rich countries are not doing enough to respond to crises such as in Syria and Yemen, and reducing the UK’s role in this area would be a profoundly regressive step. Carving out ten percent of the UK’s aid budget for conservation would reduce the role we could play in global responses to conflict, disaster and disease.

There’s an important administrative point to consider too – scaling up the UK’s work on global conservation by a factor of more than ten times in two years would not work. Reviews of the cross-Government Prosperity Fund have made it clear that its attempts to scale up too fast have resulted in poor transparency, poor value for money, and crucially, a low level of effectiveness. This should act as a warning sign in contemplating the report’s proposal, which is significantly more ambitious.

The International Development Committee pointed out this month that the move to spend more of the aid budget outside DFID has damaged cohesion and transparency. Furthermore, the Aid Transparency Index, published today, showed the huge gap in transparency standards between DFID, ‘Very Good’ on transparency, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – rated ‘poor’ and near the bottom of the list.

We need to ensure that all UK aid meets the same high standards of transparency, whichever department is spending it, so that decision-makers and the public can have confidence that it’s making a difference and can call it out when it isn’t. Vastly increasing the portion of the aid budget spent through DEFRA, which is too small a donor to feature on the Index but is significantly less experienced in aid spending than even the Foreign Office, would give taxpayers less clarity on the impact that their money was achieving.

The Government committed to achieving ‘Very Good’ ratings for the aid transparency of all departments by 2020 and is clearly a long way from meeting this target. It would be irresponsible to so significantly increase the level of spending through departments that cannot meet the standards it sets.

To make the biggest difference to the world’s poorest and most desperate people, UK aid must not stray from its primary objective of tackling poverty and suffering. Diverting funding away from causes that save lives and help countries to stand on their own two feet would reduce the UK’s role as an international development superpower, particularly if it also damages transparency. Global conservation efforts are vital to the future of our planet, but it would be short-sighted to fund them at the expense of the world’s poorest people.

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