How UK Aid Learns

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.

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12 Sep 2019
Lead commissioner
Tamsyn Barton
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As ICAI has observed in many of its reviews, applying learning to programmes is fundamental to the quality, impact and value for money of UK aid. Since 2015, the UK government has involved more departments in the spending of UK aid. Around a quarter of the £14 billion annual aid budget is now spent outside DFID. This has given rise to a major organisational learning challenge, as 18 departments have worked to acquire the knowledge and skills to spend aid effectively.

This rapid review assesses the quality of the learning processes around non-DFID aid. Building on a 2014 ICAI review of How DFID Learns, it looks across the other aid-spending departments. It draws on findings from past ICAI reviews of particular funds and programmes, together with light-touch reviews of learning processes within each department, using an assessment framework developed for the purpose. Our findings are intended to encourage departments to look in more depth at their own learning needs and capabilities. We also assessed how well aid-spending departments exchange learning with each other and with DFID.


  • The decision to allocate the UK aid budget across multiple departments has been a major organisational shift, raising complex learning challenges, and there has not been a structured process for building aid-management capability in new aid-spending departments.
  • Departments have been on a steep learning curve, with each approaching the task of acquiring the necessary learning in its own way. Most have made important progress with investments in learning that are broadly commensurate with the size and complexity of their aid budgets.
  • Learning arrangements are not always well integrated into aid management processes, and where learning is outsourced, there is the risk of knowledge and know-how accumulating in the commercial supplier, rather than being absorbed by the department itself.
  • A potential benefit of involving more departments in delivering UK aid is the ability to draw on their core technical expertise – for example, on health, justice or taxation.
  • There is a good level of exchange of learning between aid-spending departments, with a set of cross-government learning networks beginning to emerge – though the cross-government architecture for learning about aid is not yet mature. Co-location within countries also facilitates exchange of learning across departments.
  • The UK government has made a strong commitment to transparency in UK aid, recognising it as a driver of value for money, but progress in reaching transparency standards is mixed.
  • Some departments are capturing learning on information platforms, but information security concerns and technical constraints prevent them from being accessible across departments.
  • DFID provides extensive support to other departments – and other departments are also helping DFID to learn – but no additional resources have previously been given to support learning across government.


  1. DFID should be properly mandated and resourced to support learning on good development practice across aid-spending departments.
  2. 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.
  3. The Senior Officials Group (which has oversight of ODA) should mandate a review and, if necessary, a rationalisation of major MEL contracts, and ensure that they are resourced at an appropriate level.
  4. 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.

Government response

The government publishes a response to all ICAI reviews. The government response is available to read online.

International Development Committee

There will be an International Development Committee hearing into this review in due course.