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International Aid

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 24 April 2008

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that that UK aid is used effectively to reduce poverty in the world’s poorest countries. DfID has a rigorous system of evaluation and has established the Independent Advisory Committee for Development Impact. Progress against public service agreement targets is tracked continuously and formally reported in the autumn performance report and the departmental report. Parliament, the National Audit Office and the OECD Development Assistance Committee scrutinise our international development assistance.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will the Government take up the proposal made by my honourable friend in another place, Andrew Mitchell, for an independent aid watchdog to provide detailed scrutiny of the effectiveness of British aid in reducing poverty—especially now with the further fear of famine—rather than the self-evaluation that takes place at present?

My Lords, the Independent Advisory Committee for Development Impact, while within DfID, is genuinely independent. It is chaired by David Peretz, an independent consultant and senior adviser to the Independent Evaluation Office of the IMF, the World Bank and other international organisations. It will operate independently of DfID management; the chair will write annually to the Secretary of State; the minutes of its meetings will be made public; and the chair will also appear before the International Development Committee when required.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his new position. He is not yet listed on the website of the Government Whips’ Office, but I hope that he will be shortly. Does he agree that we are seriously off-track with regard to meeting the MDGs in 2015 and that aid must now be regarded as an international, and not simply a national, priority? What impact will the massive rise in food prices have on the effectiveness of all international aid? What international initiatives can therefore be taken to try to address this? Does he see change in international institutions as being urgent if a global crisis such as this is to be properly addressed?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her welcome; I realise that this will be the only gentle day.

The present crisis has been addressed by the Secretary of State for International Development, Mr Douglas Alexander. We have already talked about the advance in payment of budgetary support to countries highly affected. The UK is pledging £30 million of additional aid to the World Food Programme and £25 million of aid specifically to Ethiopia, and it is co-operating in an international research programme involving more than £1 billion, £400 million of which is new funds, which will be available over the next five years for agricultural research. We are also co-operating internationally in establishing uniform evaluation of the effectiveness of aid.

My Lords, in assessing the effectiveness of our aid programme, is it not worth the Government stressing two things in particular: first, that, as well as substantially increasing the overall amount that has been allocated, they have particular expertise in the speed with which they respond to emergencies; and, secondly—a point often overlooked—that DfID is a very young department? It was established in 1997, which is a date that we all remember vividly; one of the Government’s great achievements is to have established an independent department of state dealing with this massively important subject. I doubt that it will ever be changed.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I am very tempted simply to agree with him. We can be very proud of this country’s programme of aid. I believe that I do not exceed my brief in saying that it has wide cross-party support and wide support in this House. We are on track to raise international aid from £2.1 billion in 1997 to an anticipated £9.1 billion in 2010, which represents a trebling of aid in real terms. We are also on track to meet our UN target by 2013. The fact that we have an independent department with a seat in Cabinet is unusual in the world, if not quite unique, and allows a very quick response to emergencies.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the Government, in monitoring the results of the aid given, do not rely solely on government, top-level contacts and actually examine the situation on the ground, at individual level and at the recipient end, for only in that way will they have any chance of stopping corruption?

My Lords, we are concerned about corruption and effectiveness. We are particularly concerned about effectiveness in the aid that we give to Governments because, clearly, that is an area in which corruption is possible. But we believe that it is very important to deliver aid through Governments because, in the long run, only through Governments can countries be brought out of poverty.

We try to protect our funds in three ways: we assess risk before giving support, assess underlying problems and, if necessary, we have special audits. In particular, in areas of high risk we use public expenditure tracking surveys to trace government money from the budget allocation to check that it reaches the end user—for example, schools and clinics.

My Lords, on behalf of a whole variety of development agencies, I, too, welcome the Minister to his post. On effectiveness, does the department accept that the partnerships that it can develop, not only with development agencies in this country but, through them, with a whole variety of civil society and voluntary agencies across the world, are one of the most effective ways in which we can tackle poverty and ensure that resources get to where they are needed?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his welcome. We entirely agree with the general view that, through partnerships, we will get better value for the aid and develop in-country capability. Aid is best spent in the longer term creating ways out of poverty in those societies, so we can look to long-term help for these societies, not simply short-term emergency relief.