Sir Hugh Bayley, joint head of the UK’s aid watchdog the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), told members of the International Development Committee on Wednesday that the “short-term” focus of British aid officials had prevented them from preparing for China’s transition to high income country status.
He said: “We don’t think that they have done a great deal of work to date and we don’t think the Government is well prepared.
“We put the question to officials and I think I’m right in saying that the answer we got is because there was a one-year spending review rather than a long-term spending review it was difficult to look ahead.”
Even the three-year spending review expected later in 2021 is unlikely to cover the period when China transitions to high-income status, Sir Hugh added, further limiting civil servants’ ability to prepare.
But he said he was “sure” the UK would want to continue collaborating with China on areas such as public health and climate change “for decades to come”.
He said: “Our advice would be that you need to plan long-term and talk with your partner long-term rather than say in the course of a year we are going to end our aid relationship and we want to build a different relationship.
“These things take time to build commitment to, from both the partner country and through adapting UK policy.”
During Wednesday’s session, members of the committee also expressed concern at the lack of focus on poverty reduction in the UK’s aid programmes in China, despite the International Development Act requiring this to be the central focus.
Sarah Champion said she was “shocked” that £912 million of additional UK exports had been secured through aid spending, adding this was “not the primary focus of what ODA [official development assistance] is meant to be”.
Gideon Rabinowitz, who led ICAI’s inquiry into aid to China, said these were “secondary benefits” often as a result of relationships developed through aid, but Sir Hugh acknowledged that his team “saw less emphasis on poverty reduction in the China programmes than we would expect in programmes in low-income countries”.
Ms Champion also raised concerns over a lack of transparency in aid spending in China after Sir Hugh said officials in London were reluctant to publicise British aid programmes in China because “there might be an adverse public reaction”.
She said: “A lot of what I’ve heard today has rather shocked and disappointed me, but this particularly – officials are saying there is a reluctance to broadcast how they are spending taxpayers’ money because there might be an adverse reaction.
“If the focus is about alleviating poverty, there wouldn’t be any adverse reaction because that’s exactly what is meant.”