New ICAI review – How UK Aid Learns

12 Sep 2019

Departments with new aid budgets are increasingly developing their understanding of how to use aid effectively – but more should be done to integrate learning into international development spending across government to ensure value for money, a new review from the UK’s aid watchdog has found.

How UK Aid Learns, published today by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), looks at the learning processes of 18 aid-spending departments and funds, and how they work with the Department for International Development (DFID). Since 2015, more departments have been involved in spending official development assistance (ODA), with around a quarter of the £14billion annual aid budget now spent outside DFID – creating a steep and complex learning curve for those involved.

The review found that despite limited guidance and resources, departments have made progress in developing their aid management capabilities, and in sharing their learning with others. However, learning was not always well-integrated into real-time decision-making – and a lack of transparency and incompatible technical systems between departments hampered learning further.

ICAI chief commissioner Tamsyn Barton said: “Although there can be benefits to involving more departments in international development – such as the specialist knowledge they bring on subjects like health or the environment – we had warned in previous reviews that there is a significant learning curve for those that are new to spending aid, and it can take years for capability to develop.

“Important progress is being made, and the extra resources given to DFID to support cross-government capability-building in last week’s Spending Review show that our recommendations are being taken on board.

“However, departments can do more to ensure the lessons they’re continually learning are shared and acted upon in a timely, integrated and transparent way. Ultimately, this will increase value for money for taxpayers, while ensuring aid delivers maximum support to the people who need it most.”

As part of the review, ICAI considered areas such as the depth and complexity of the learning processes required, the relative size of each department’s aid spend, engagement and sharing across government, and the use of outsourced monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) contracts.

Overall, it found that when funding was committed in 2015, all new aid-spending departments were required to put in place aid management capabilities that represented “international best practice” – but no additional resources were provided to help them meet this standard, and detailed value for money guidance was not provided until 2018.

Despite these challenges, most departments made important progress in developing their capabilities, and in sharing what they had learned with others. However, the review found that this learning did not necessarily translate into more informed decision-making, improved programming or effective research – instead often being treated as a stand-alone exercise when most funding had already been committed.

It also found that departments could improve learning by being more transparent with their aid spend, with only a small number of departments publishing data to the “best practice” international transparency standards used by DFID – despite the government aiming to achieve these standards by 2020. In addition, the review raised concerns that the wide variety of technical platforms used across government could hinder effective sharing of information.

The review noted that the 2015 UK aid strategy committed DFID to supporting other departments, and it highlighted the department’s positive work in this area, delivering skills training, setting up learning networks and seconding staff. However, it found that DFID had not been given any clear mandate for how to support their work, nor had it previously been given additional resource to do so – something reviewers described as a “significant omission”.

ICAI has set out four recommendations:

  • DFID should be properly mandated and resourced to support learning on good development practice across aid-spending departments.
  • As part of any Spending Review process, HM Treasury should require departments bidding for aid resources to provide evidence of their investment in learning systems and processes.
  • The Senior Officials Group (with oversight of ODA) should mandate a review and, if necessary, a rationalisation of major MEL contracts, and ensure they are resourced at an appropriate level.
  • Where aid-spending departments develop knowledge management platforms and information systems to support learning on development aid, they should ensure that these systems are accessible to other departments and, where possible, to the public, to support transparency and sharing of learning.

Read the full review online to find out more.