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Was UK aid watchdog right to accuse DfID of failing to tackle corruption?

05 November 2014

Guest post for The Guardian on UK aid watchdog report

Do we target the servant or the paymaster?

British aid money is funding corruption overseas. Billions in British aid “goes to corrupt nations”.

These simplistic headlines have greeted a less than flattering assessment of how DfID approaches corruption in the countries it supports. Here are the headlines I would have written after reading the same report and the response to it:

Simplistic headlines fail the poor.

Watchdog fails to understand the nature of corruption.

Frankly, the report from Icai is a mess. It is a wasted opportunity to rethink how we deliver aid with integrity.

Undoubtedly, the aid community’s approach to corruption does need to change – but let’s consider how little the Icai report helps us. It doesn’t actually investigate any standalone anti-corruption projects, and yet it somehow concludes that we need more of these. It provides little credible evidence to back its recommendations. It lambasts DfID for instances of corruption that no external aid agency could possibly control.

British civil servants and DfID’s country-based officers have no power to sanction another country’s police officers when they demand payment for investigating crime, or to intervene when women are deliberately excluded from running for political office. The only sanction DfID has at its disposal is to withdraw all aid – and how does that help the victim of crime or the woman prevented from representing her community?

So if, for instance, public servants are open to bribery because their wages aren’t being paid, do we target the servant or the paymaster? Well, oddly enough, the authors of the Icai report concede that DfID initiatives are already targeting the higher levels of corruption, and doing it rather well.

In Nigeria, for example, the report talks of Justice for All’s success in winning the trust of many in the judiciary and of the DfID-supported State Accountability and Voice Initiative that works with members of Nigeria’s state houses of assembly on transparency and accountability. These are great examples of DfID “thinking and working politically” to support its partners’ domestically driven national initiatives for reform, and Icai says unequivocally that they “provide a firm basis for fostering anti-corruption champions and to start beating back corruption”.

Corruption is fuelled by any source of cash and resources. So all outside actors – including big business and donor governments – have to take a bird’s eye view of corruption and collectively support a coherent strategy.

The research shows that what works best is any support we can give to locally led reform of institutions and political processes and to changing elite attitudes. What we also know is that kneejerk window-dressing projects, like setting up anti-corruption agencies, rarely work when imposed from outside – though they make good headlines. But we’re likely to get more window dressing rather than less as a result of the Icai report.

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