Fake it till you make it

A new report slams the UK’s aid agency with accusations of spending money on “Fake Aid.” Produced by the London-based International Policy Network (IPN), “Fake Aid” casts a critical eye on the agency’s communications programming, finding that “increasing amounts of DfID funds are channeled through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fund lobbying activities, marketing and the promotion of political ideology, often within the UK.” The report uses DfID documents to show that the aid agency uses its communications budget to promote the human-rights based approach to development (which we have debated a number of times on this blog), intentionally crowding out other approaches. The budget for DfID’s communications programs has more than tripled since 2000, from £40 million in 2000 to £140 million in 2008.

Much of this money is spent through a group of NGOs—including Oxfam UK, Save the Children UK, ActionAid and Christian Aid—which receive unrestricted DfID funds thanks to long-standing relationships with the aid agency, rather than a competitive bidding process. According to a UK government audit document, open bidding was introduced after most of these organizations were already selected, and currently remains closed to new applicants.

DfID also lacks adequate information to judge whether the funds given to these organizations are appropriately spent, since reporting practices have been characterized by self-reported, inconsistent data, and a lack of external, independent evaluations, again according to a UK government audit and DfID annual reviews.

For example, over a five-year period, DfID faulted the Catholic Agency for Overseas Relief (CAFOD) for failing to provide “an overview of the progress and impact of the programme as a whole” and criticized them for measuring inputs rather than results, but still renewed their funding in 2008 for £13.8 million.

One organization funded by DfID persuaded the government of Gambia to ban all-inclusive package holidays, an outcome which seems to contradict the UK’s policy on trade and development to promote the private sector as an important driver of poverty reduction.

The effectiveness of another organization, both founded and entirely funded by DfID to “provide a forum for BME [black and ethnic minority] voluntary and community sector organizations and communities on issues relating to international development,” was challenged by an independent audit. The audit found that there was no working email address for almost half the group’s members, and that “there is a lack of clarity over the purpose of the organization.”

Despite these examples of poor practice, we would suggest a few points of disagreement with the conclusions in “Fake Aid”:

First, it is not unreasonable for DfID to spend money educating UK tax payers about what DfID does, or about international development issues, as the report implies. IPN calls this “propaganda” but doesn’t convincingly explain how “propaganda” is different from “making people aware of concepts that IPN happens to disagree with.”

Second, while £140 million is a sizable sum (enough for 230 million malaria treatments says IPN) it is still less than 3 percent of DfID’s total budget. In an industry with no consistent financial practices, it’s hard to say what is normal, but it would come as no surprise to find that most nonprofits, and most aid agencies, spend more than 3 percent on communications and publicity.

“Fake Aid” concludes: “As the total amount spent on these programs reaches the £1 billion mark, it is reasonable to ask whether they have improved the lives of people in poor countries.” It is a fair question. These programs may be an appropriate use of DfID funds, but the burden falls to DfID to prove it.