Countries in Africa are losing money to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and others supporting the Syrian refugee crisis, according to figures that have raised fresh concerns about the use of the British aid budget.
The report, published on Wednesday, also revealed a massive rise in aid spending channelled though government departments other than international development, prompting fears over transparency and accountability.
Such spending increased by almost 50% between 2015 and 2016, including aid money going into funds that, overseen by the national security council, have been criticised for their lack of accountability. There are also fears that overseas aid money is being channelled into government departments that have suffered austerity cuts.
Overall, the British aid spend rose by 10% to £13.3bn in 2016, a rise of £1.2m compared with 2015. Overseas development assistance (ODA) to Africa was down by £20m in 2016, compared with the previous year, while aid spending to countries in Asia and Europe hosting Syrian and other refugees was up £67m and £79m respectively.
The latest figures, published at a time of intense scrutiny of UK aid, come amid warnings from NGOs and some MPs that the way the budget is spent could sideline Britain’s focus on helping the world’s poorest. Both Theresa May and Priti Patel, the international development secretary, have stated they will continue to uphold the UN overseas spending target of 0.7 % of national income, despite fierce campaigning among backbench Tories and others for the UK to abandon it.
Labour MP Stephen Doughty, a member of the international development select committee, said he had concerns about the diversion of aid to other government departments.
“Priti Patel says she wants our aid money to be spent more effectively and in the world’s poorest countries, and it is welcome that she has recommitted to the 0.7% target. However, aid spent through other departments is less transparent and often appears to be used for other objectives other than poverty reduction, which is the focus of our aid.
“I’m pleased that the international development committee on which I sit is looking into this and we will be scrutinising spending by other departments very closely.”
In December, the committee launched an inquiry over overseas aid spending by departments other than DfID.
Earlier this year, the UK’s aid watchdog warned that a separate £1.3bn pot of aid money intended to reduce global poverty would become focused on trade with wealthier economies like China and Brazil. The prosperity fund, a new provider in 2016, spent £38m in 2016, the new figures show, but is set to run to 2021.
In 2016, the largest share of ODA used outside DfID was the 5% spent by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Security. The Foreign and Commonwealth office took 3.8%.
Tim Livesey, Oxfam’s head of policy, welcomed the significant increase in aid funding. “Both the prime minister and the secretary of state for development have made a clear commitment [to 0.7 %]. This is Britain’s offering to the world and it is spot on, although a lot of people don’t like it.
“We have concerns that despite the uplift in aid in line with 0.7%, most of the additional aid is spent in other government departments,” he said.
“It is really important that the way that these departments spend that money should have a clear anti-poverty focus and a humanitarian focus and that they are properly scrutinised by parliament. It’s our feeling that DfID is well scrutinised, but it is important that the whole of the aid budget is well spent and well scrutinised.”
Some aid groups also said the UK needed to be mindful of long-term strategies to reduce poverty.
Saira O’Mallie, UK director of the ONE campaign said: “It’s right to tackle urgent crises such as the refugee crisis, but we can’t just be fire-fighting. DfID also needs to focus on long-term strategy. The 2015 UK aid strategy talked about stability and we also have to look at the sustainable development goals to end poverty by 2030.
“We should be looking for long-term stability, education, employment and empowerment.”