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UK aid report generates misleading headlines but few ideas

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact scrutinizes the spending of the UK’s £11.5 billion ($18.4 billion) overseas development assistance budget. The aid budget, which is the second largest after that of the United States, has been expanded to reach .71% of GDP and represents a genuine achievement for the current coalition government in difficult financial times.

Last week the Commission, which carries out its work through a small secretariat and a contractor team led by KPMG, released its second anti-corruption report entitled DFID’s Approach to Anti-Corruption and its Impact on the Poor.

The report sought to examine DFID’s efforts “to reduce corruption as experienced by the poor, rather than on the integrity of the use of DFID’s money.” It awarded DFID with an unsatisfactory amber-red traffic light and made five fairly generalized recommendations along the lines of: implementing detailed plans for tackling corruption in priority countries including as experienced by the poor; rolling out standalone strategies for corruption and the poor with 10-14 year goals for corruption; expanding anti-corruption programs especially through education; collating feedback from stakeholders and beneficiaries to enable spot checking; and creating a global anti-corruption center of excellence.

The Commission’s headline conclusion was as follows:

We saw very little evidence that the work DFID is doing to combat corruption is successfully addressing the impact of corruption as experienced by the poor. Indeed, there is little indication that DFID has sought to address the forms of corruption that most directly affect the poor: so called ‘petty’ corruption. This is a gap in DFID’s programming that needs to be filled.

Unfortunately, this rather severe tone was seized on and generated a considerable amount of heated comment from skim-reading politicians and media alike, producing pithy observations such as  “taking from the poor in rich countries and giving to the rich in poor countries,” “funding overseas corruption” and “damning.” A fuller reading of the report would have revealed that such comments were largely unjustified and a sense that the Commission’s report itself could perhaps have been expressed in more measured, better targeted and more constructive terms.

Tackling “petty corruption experienced by the poor” is a laudable objective but working within the constraints of delivering overseas assistance, in often very difficult jurisdictions, may not be the chief or the most achievable priority. The Commission did refer in passing to DFID’s only specific anti-petty corruption program, which was rolled out in Sierra Leone and adjudged successful. However, the Commission then sought to base its finding almost exclusively on an examination of programs with quite different priorities in Nepal and Nigeria. In the former, DFID makes use of the government, in the latter, it uses direct or partner donors. Unsurprisingly, the Commission found petty corruption shortcomings in both.

For instance, in Nigeria, the Commission, having carried out a local community survey, criticized a local police station improvement program for not dispelling the local community’s suspicions of the police. Any other result would probably have raised even greater concerns. In the case of Nepal, local soundings revealed that petty bribes, akin to facilitation payments, and forgeries were required to release community improvement funds due to timetabling pressures. Plainly unacceptable but probably unavoidable within the constraints of rolling out an otherwise valuable assistance program through the auspices of the government.

The Commission’s report does provide some constructive guidance on ensuring that intended beneficiaries should benefit without encountering or encouraging petty corruption. It rightly highlights the failure to roll out specifically targeted petty anti-corruption programs as in Sierra Leone. However, its media headlining and condemnatory tone has exposed DFID and its “beneficiaries” to a much greater evil than the subject of the report, namely, obfuscation by those who would seek to remove or substantially reduce overseas assistance on account of largely unjustified corruption perceptions.


Alistair Craig, a commercial barrister practicing in London, is a frequent contributor to the FCPA Blog.

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