The controversial decision to scrap a dedicated government department has had a negative effect on overseas aid spending, an official watchdog found.
Bringing overseas aid within the Foreign Office slowed down moves to boost the impact of billions of pounds worth of investment and assure value for money for the taxpayer, a report published today warns.
Experts warned the move would hit the world’s poorest just as they were facing the challenge of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
But foreign secretary Dominic Raab pledged that the move would make aid spending more effective.
He said he wanted to improve transparency and accountability and “relentlessly focus” on areas that would deliver the most value.
In its report the Independent Commission for Aid (Icai) warned that the merger, as well as a subsequent announcement that the UK planned to slash its overseas aid budget in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, had held back progress.
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.”
She added: “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.”
The report was part of a follow up process by the Icai, checking on progress one year on from a series of recommendations it made for improvements. Dr Barton said: “Since we found inadequate progress... we will return next year in the hope of seeing a more encouraging picture”.
Earlier this year the Icai cast doubt on the government’s claim to be slashing aid to China by 95 per cent, saying that only a fraction of the budget was being cut.
An FCDO spokesperson said: "We are committed to full transparency, and throughout the pandemic have continued to publish our aid spending for each project online so anyone can see it.
“The seismic impact of the pandemic meant we focused resources towards our Covid-19 response to help the most vulnerable. We have provided documents and information to ICAI as part of their follow up review and continue to focus on maintaining spending transparency."