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UK aid choices should be guided by evidence of what saves lives

How we spend UK aid is rightly subject to regular review. As the world changes, it’s important we change with it. To ensure UK aid is accountable to the world’s poorest people and British taxpayers, scrutiny is vital.

In 2019, debates around UK aid have ramped up. In the context of a cross-government spending review and our departure from the European Union (and all the associated political machinations), this is hardly surprising.

As part of these debates, some of the more political organisations, such as the Henry Jackson Society and the Taxpayers Alliance, are asking questions about the efficiency of Britain’s multilateral aid spending – the UK aid that is delivered through institutions like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria or Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – as opposed to the bilateral aid that we give directly to governments and implementing partners on the ground.

Making decisions

While it’s right these global bodies are subject to scrutiny, it’s important that decisions about the future are based on evidence, not on headline-grabbing political briefings. Ensuring that UK aid investments deliver both the highest impact on the ground and best value for money is also about choosing the best delivery channel for development objectives.

In some instances, direct support is the best choice. This week’s Syria announcement to increase life-saving support is an example of where, in terms of expertise and staff, the UK is well placed to make a massive difference.

In other cases, a multilateral agency might be better placed to achieve objectives – because of its pooled expertise, cost-effective approach in regard to coordinating response, long-term presence in a particular country and ability to operate at large scale.

The UK currently spends 63% of its aid bilaterally* and 37% through multilateral organisations. The choice of delivery channel is guided by the UK’s own exceptionally robust evidence: the Multilateral Development Review regularly assesses the 38 multilateral agencies the UK works with and rates them on their effectiveness. Basing decisions on this evidence helps ensure that UK aid is not only spent well but – in the words of International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt – “could not be better spent”.

Benefits of multilateral aid

As the Multilateral Development Review sets out, in many cases, delivering aid through multilateral organisations helps UK aid go further, faster, and achieve better results.

Take Gavi. The UK is the largest donor to Gavi, funding vital vaccines to children in 73 countries. Since its inception in 2000, UK aid to Gavi has helped vaccinate at large scale: reaching 640 million children and saving 9 million lives from preventable diseases.

Because of its size, scale and expertise, Gavi is able to work in a cost-effective way and deliver long-term change, shaping the market for vaccines to push down prices for everyone. A classic ‘win-win’.

In order to deliver anything remotely on a par with this through bilateral aid spending, the UK Department for International Development would have to invest in more staff and a much larger presence in eligible countries. Not only would this create damaging duplication, the Chancellor Phillip Hammond might have something to say about spending more taxpayers’ money to deliver less impact!

Multilateral reform

However, multilateral spending does not per se bring value for money. It too can always improve – as the Multilateral Development Review itself identifies. It’s right that we demand our partners operate at their best. But dramatically increasing bilateral aid spending without evidence, and walking away from multilateral partners who are often best placed to drive change – as some of our political friends suggest – would decrease the value of UK aid money. It would also have an impact on Britain’s standing in the world.

The UK is an “international development superpower”. That status means the UK has an unrivalled opportunity both to wield its formidable soft power through multilateral organisations and to reform those not meeting our high expectations.

The Department for International Development has successfully done this a number of times, including:

These funds are delivering transformative change for the world’s people thanks to their pooled expertise and broad reach. And because of British investment in them, they’re also improving – delivering lasting results and demonstrable value for money.

What next?

In a recent speech, Penny Mordaunt stressed that “if we want to deliver the Global Goals, we have to let others help”.

We agree – partnership is the only way to deliver the transformative change needed to meet the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals. But we also agree with the Secretary of State that the best partners hold each other accountable to high standards.

As she considers how to do this, we’re confident Penny Mordaunt will make her decisions based on rigorous evidence produced by experts in her department, not the latest polemical musing on Global Britain.



* The 63% of aid that DFID spends bilaterally includes specifically-earmarked aid delivered via multilaterals.


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