How UK aid learns

The 2015 UK aid strategy commits to ensuring that every penny of ODA spent across government is – and remains – good value for money. Investing in learning is a key contribution to increasing value for money, potentially improving impact, reducing unintended negative consequences and avoiding the costs of repeating past failures.


With close to 30% of the aid budget now spent through departments other than DFID, learning within those departments and across government in relation to aid has become increasingly important. The UK aid strategy commits DFID to supporting other departments in delivering and quality-assuring their ODA spend. Departments are expected to draw on DFID’s expertise for programme delivery.

In addition, with increasing ambition around delivering in fragile and conflict-affected states and seeking transformational change, the need for continuous learning in each stage of the delivery chain has grown. This includes building capacity for design, approval, contracting, monitoring, evaluation and learning.

ICAI’s 2014 review of ‘How DFID learns’ awarded DFID an amber-red score and significantly influenced DFID’s ways of working. However, in subsequent reviews which have examined learning in different thematic areas, ICAI has found that increased spending on evidence, knowledge and learning does not always translate into more informed decision making or improved programming within or across departments.

In the best cases, investments in research and evidence in areas such as violence against women and girls and inclusive growth have provided a strong foundation for subsequent programming. However, various concerns with learning have been raised, particularly in thematic reviews involving departments other than DFID, including lack of learning from previous similar programmes/funds, lack of learning from external good practice, late or no development of monitoring, evaluation and learning systems in cross-government funds and portfolios, or inadequate dissemination of lessons.

As this is a rapid review we will not be publishing an approach paper. Information on our approach is provided below and will be included in more detail when the review is published.

Purpose and scope

The purpose of this review is to understand how well ODA-spending departments learn in order to deliver aid effectively and provide value for money. The review aims to provide timely and useful insights on departments’ resources and capability to use learning in the design and delivery of their ODA interventions. The focus is on learning in the delivery management cycle by all ODA-spending departments including cross-government funds. DFID will be in scope but only in relation to cross-government learning. The review will explore the extent to which other departments learn from DFID and vice-versa.

As ODA spending by departments other than DFID is in many cases still relatively new, and aspects of this topic have been covered in recent or ongoing ICAI reviews (for example, the Prosperity Fund, CSSF, Global Health Threats, GCRF, Newton Fund and International Climate Finance), we have chosen to conduct a rapid review on this topic. It will build on ICAI’s 2014 review ‘How DFID learns’ and relevant findings from other subsequent ICAI reviews which featured questions on learning, testing the hypothesis that every department has something unique to offer to effective learning of what works well in ODA. This current rapid review does not aim to cover DFID or other departments in anything like the same depth.

This review will also include DFID’s role in supporting other government departments with learning, and the adequacy and effectiveness of cross-government learning and coordination mechanisms. The review will cover the period since the 2015 UK aid strategy (2016-17 to 2018-19).

Review questions

  • Relevance: To what extent do aid-spending government departments (apart from DFID) have systems and processes, resources and incentives in place to enable effective learning about their spending of ODA?
    • To what extent is DFID supporting other government departments to learn? And vice versa?
  • Effectiveness: How effectively is learning shared across aid-spending departments and used to improve the effectiveness and value-for-money of aid?
    • How effectively is learning being used to improve the design and delivery of aid programmes?
    • How well do government departments learn from and share learning with DFID?


Given the rapid timeline the review will not involve in-country fieldwork, although it will look at learning in-country. A combination of methodologies will be used to answer the review questions, providing a sufficient level of triangulation to ensure robust findings.

The methodology is likely to include some or all of the following elements:

  • A brief update on the literature review on organisational learning.
  • A collection and analysis of documents prepared by aid-spending departments.
  • Key stakeholder interviews with aid-spending departments at the headquarters level and, where possible, at country level (remotely), including with relevant policy leads and the officials responsible for research, evaluation and learning.
  • Consultations with aid-spending departments in Whitehall and in a small sample of selected partner countries (conducted remotely). The purpose of the latter is to incorporate an in-country perspective on how well UK aid spending departments collaborate and share learning.
  • Structured consultations, and/or key informant interviews, and/or roundtables with relevant external stakeholders or other donors and organisations providing overseas development assistance.


The review will be carried out over a five-month period with publication expected in Summer 2019.