The current state of UK aid: A synthesis of ICAI findings from 2015 to 2019

Over the period from 2015 to 2019, ICAI has accumulated a rich body of evidence on the performance of UK aid. We have drawn together the key findings from across the 28 reviews and four follow-ups conducted over the last four years, to produce an analysis of the current state of UK aid and the challenges ahead.

PDF download
20 Jun 2019
Lead commissioner
Richard Gledhill

The 2015-19 period has been a dynamic one for UK aid. The Sustainable Development Goals have reshaped the global development agenda. The UK has mounted its largest ever humanitarian operation in response to the Syria crisis, and UK aid has responded to a range of other global challenges, from Ebola to the growing threat of climate change. Within the UK, more departments have taken on a role in spending aid, as the aid programme has become more integrated into the UK’s machinery for external engagement.

Looking ahead, UK aid will continue to evolve rapidly, in response to a dynamic global context and new UK priorities. The government has pledged to put development “at the heart of our international agenda”, while making sure that the aid programme serves to enhance the UK’s global influence and interests. This review explores how well equipped the aid programme is to respond to the challenges ahead, and the opportunities and risks associated with the changing functions of UK aid. As well as being of interest to policymakers and other stakeholders, this assessment will inform ICAI’s future selection of reviews.


Leaving no one behind

DFID has responded well to the ‘leave no one behind principle’, despite substantial practical challenges, but other aid-spending departments are yet to adopt the commitment.

Promoting jobs and economic transformation

A more convincing approach and set of instruments for promoting economic development have been developed but remain new and untested. Considerable work is needed to learn how to deploy these tools effectively and in combination to meet the unique needs of each partner country.

Conflict and crisis

UK aid has shown it can deliver in the midst of conflict, in some of the world’s most challenging contexts, giving the UK more flexibility to pursue its objectives and enhance its leadership role in the international response to crises. However, UK aid does not yet have a convincing approach to addressing the long-term drivers of conflict and fragility.

Global threats

The UK has demonstrated on many occasions that it can be highly influential in shaping the international response to global crises, especially in the form of providing technical expertise, but the most pressing global challenges – particularly climate change and antimicrobial resistance – call for greater urgency and intensity of action.

The changing profile of UK aid

The government has clearly signaled its intention to use the aid programme to pursue direct UK national interests, in particular, by helping to position the UK as a key trade and investment partner with frontier economies. While the pursuit of mutual prosperity is not necessarily in conflict with good development practice, the focus needs to remain on building long-term opportunities, rather than securing short-term advantage.