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A guide to DFID's Bilateral and Multilateral Aid reviews – the key questions and what we know so far

Written by Claire Melamed

What are the BAR and the MAR?
Andrew Mitchell launched the two thoroughgoing reviews of the whole of DFID’s aid programme in June 2010. The Multilateral Aid Review (MAR), was to assess how well each of the thirty or so organisations funded by DFID spent the £3 billion or so they receive between them from DFID’s budget. The Bilateral Aid Review (BAR) was to look at the other half of the aid budget, the £3 billion spent in just under 100 countries, and again to assess how well each was performing. 

This has been a flagship part of the new focus on results and value for money at DFID, and the results will set the framework for UK aid policy for several years to come.  

Where will DFID’s money go?
This week it’s time for the drumroll as the results are released.  These may not be too surprising as there’s already been some leaking of the findings.  We hear from the press reports that aid to 16 countries will probably be cut. Some of these are middle income or fast growing countries – such as China (already announced in the summer), Vietnam, and Cambodia.  Some people may be a little surprised to hear that DFID had programmes in Serbia, Russia or Moldova, and these are duly being cut.  But some, such as Niger, Lesotho or Burundi, might raise eyebrows – all are very poor countries, and this summer Niger was in the grip of a famine that threatened tens of thousands of lives.  The rationale seems to be that these were small or underperforming programmes where, the implication is, not much good was being done so cutting them will have little impact. 

It’s also been rumoured that some UN agencies might be tightening their belts a little – the Food and Agriculture Organisation, for example, is rumoured to be off DFID’s list.

There’s good news for some.  Aid to Yemen is set to double, and Somalia will see support from DFID triple. The World Food Programme is also rumoured to be seeing an increase.  And Ethiopia, with a possible increase in its funding from the UK, may soon be DFID’s largest single recipient of aid, elbowing aside India where aid will continue but, we hear, will not increase. 

How will DFID’s money be spent?
It’s not just where aid goes that will change.  How it’s spent is set to see a big shake-up too.  DFID will be testing out ‘cash-on-delivery’ aid, an idea which was enthusiastically endorsed in the Conservatives’ Green Paper on Development, released before the election, and which they now intend to put into practice.  Cash on Delivery aid is paid only when certain results have been achieved – say, 20 dollars for each child who completes primary school.  Even where Cash on Delivery is not implemented, governments will be required to set and monitor specific targets to be delivered using DFID’s funds.

Will the reviews help increase public support for aid?
The pre-launch publicity blitz reveals one key aim of the reviews – to calm down the sometimes quite vicious domestic debate about development aid.  It’s hoped that by showing that the government is prepared to get tough with governments and organisations which aren’t delivering, the public will be more prepared to believe that those governments and organisations which are getting aid must, therefore, be delivering results.

But the government is not just asking people to take this on trust. A new Independent Commission for Aid Impact has been established and will report to the DFID Select Committee. The changes to how aid is delivered are also designed to make it much easier to point to particular children in school or particular women receiving assistance with childbirth and say that this is because of British aid.  Again, the hope is that people will fall back in love with the aid programme once they are convinced of the good it does. 

Is it all about the UK’s security interests?
No DFID document is complete without an assertion that aid is in the UK’s security interests as well as being a moral imperative.  Some fear, that DFID’s ambition to end poverty will in the end be diluted by the government’s security aims. The leaks provide evidence for both sides: big increases of aid for Yemen and Somalia, but the cutting of the programme in Iraq.  When we get the full results of the reviews, it’s what happens to aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan that will determine how this plays out over the next few years. 

What does value for money mean?
Both reviews are predicated on the idea that one can define and measure value for money in development.  Andrew Mitchell himself is fond of saying that the UK will get ‘100 pence of value for every hard-earned British taxpayer's pound we spend’. It would be a relief to many if the reviews were to define what the ‘value’ is that aid is seeking to achieve.  And, despite the laudable intention to achieve the best results possible, how this will fit with a reality where risks have to be taken and where perceived failures may be a sign of healthy innovation rather than simply failure.