New report: ICAI follow-up review of 2019-20 reports

23 Jun 2021

  • Independent Commission for Aid Impact follow-up review of its 2019-20 reports examines progress made by aid-spending government departments and funds on addressing ICAI recommendations
  • Aid watchdog rates government response to all three reviews as inadequate, partly due to the impact of, and response to, COVID-19, but also as a result of the formation of the new FCDO, which slowed progress on implementing recommendations
  • Report commits to further follow-up next year to ascertain progress made, and calls for a renewed focus on transparency and accountability in UK aid

The impact of COVID-19, and of the formation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), have held back the implementation of recommendations intended to improve the effectiveness and impact of government interventions and to assure taxpayers of the value for money of UK aid spending, a new report by the UK’s aid watchdog has found.

The annual follow-up review, published today (Wednesday 23rd June) by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), looks back at the three ICAI reviews published in the last annual review cycle from July 2019 to June 2020, assessing the government’s progress in implementing ICAI’s recommendations and providing a score. The follow-up also returns to four reviews published in previous cycles in order to address outstanding issues.

The report scored the government’s progress on addressing ICAI’s recommendations in all three reviews as inadequate and confirms that ICAI will return to reassess the government’s progress again next year. The reviews were: ‘How UK aid learns’, ‘The UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ and ‘The changing nature of UK aid in Ghana’.

ICAI’s chief commissioner, Dr Tamsyn Barton, said: “On the one hand, we have seen impressive improvements as a result of ICAI’s engagement with organisations delivering UK aid. However, we have also observed that the turbulence created by Covid-19 and two associated processes of major cuts to programmes, together with the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development, have set back progress which was under way last year.

“A cause for concern in this context has been a reduction in open engagement in the follow-up process. While it may be that this is a result of overload at an exceptionally busy time, transparency is key to learning, and given the increased focus on ICAI’s role in enabling UK aid to learn and improve, it is more important than ever before. Since we found inadequate progress in relation to all three reviews being followed up this year, we will return next year in the hope of seeing a more encouraging picture”.

The follow-up review – the evidence gathering for which took place between January and April 2021 – mainly covered actions taken by the UK government to address ICAI recommendations during the calendar year 2020, a period of enormous change in the UK aid landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a global humanitarian crisis, in response to which the UK government recommitted a total of £1.39 billion from the UK aid budget towards the COVID-19 response.  At the same time, lockdown measures and restrictions on travel around the world severely affected the delivery of aid programmes, as did an unprecedented in-year cut of £712 million in planned expenditure after a sharp drop in UK gross national income.

The merger of DFID and FCO to form FCDO in September 2020, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (published on 16 March 2021), the spending review, including the November 2020 decision to reduce UK official development assistance (ODA) spending to 0.5% of GNI in 2021, have all contributed to deep uncertainty about the context for implementing ICAI’s recommendations.

In this period of flux, ICAI has reported concerns about the transparency of UK ODA emerging in several, but not all, of this year’s follow-up exercises. It noted that interaction with the relevant government departments and teams has, “at times been challenging” and that it has found it, “more difficult to get access to relevant documentation and arrange interviews with the right people for the follow-up”. It also outlined how responses to ICAI requests were, “sometimes slow and information needed in order to assess progress on ICAI recommendations was often not forthcoming”. This contrasts with the more open response to the follow-up in previous years.

However, ICAI commended the engagement received from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the UK government’s Development Finance Institution, CDC. The report praised the strong improvements on compliance with UK aid rules and on ensuring development impact, which were accredited to both organisations working through the challenges previously identified by ICAI thoroughly, with ICAI acting as a “critical friend along the way”.

The overall reduction in transparency on the part of FCDO in this year’s engagement with the ICAI follow-up has led it to suggest a renewed focus on transparency and accountability in UK aid in 2021.

ICAI noted that the constraints and challenges of COVID-19, combined with the FCDO merger, meant that much of the action taken in response to ICAI’s recommendations is at an early stage or has been lost over time. In the current situation of cuts and reprioritisation of UK ODA spending, there is a risk that gains will not be sustained. ICAI therefore committed to returning to all three reviews next year as outstanding issues.

Read the report

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