The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the body responsible for scrutinising how UK aid for international development is spent has conducted an inquiry into DFID’s approach to transitions.
ICAI examined how well DFID managed the process of ending bilateral aid, or transitioning to new forms of development partnerships, in seven countries, awarding DFID an Amber Red – requiring significant improvement.
The review found that DFID has no standard approach or guidance for country offices to follow when managing exit or transition. This led to a lack of clarity in DFID’s strategic planning, poor communication and consultation with stakeholders and limited analysis of how to protect the gains of development. Several countries felt that DFID had exited too quickly and that small strategic investments, in civil society or through technical assistance would have continued to be beneficial.
ICAI has recommended that DFID should designate a central point of responsibility for exit and transitions in London, to support country offices. It has also called on DFID to redress the lack of central policy, guidance and lesson learning on transitions. This echoes a recommendation STOPAIDS first made in December 2015, in our paper, ‘Principles of a Successful Transition from External Donor Funding’ and we look forward to hearing DFID’s plans to take on board this recommendation.
During exits and transitions, it is key populations and marginalised groups that are most at risk of falling through the cracks. Policy guidance and lesson learning is needed to prevent this.
As ICAI has acknowledged, DFID’s exit often means the loss of funding for civil society. In HIV programming, civil society is often funded to reach key populations and marginalised groups that are not reached by public services. When donors exit, civil society loses funding and is unable to continue providing critical services. If the national government is unwilling to take over services, the result is a gap in HIV services for key populations which can lead to a resurgence in infections. For example, when DFID transitioned out of Vietnam, civil society lost harm reduction funding for needle exchange programmes and opiate substitute therapy. These programmes were not taken over by Vietnam- where drug users are heavily criminalised.
ICAI has called on DFID to assess the consequences of exit and transition for local civil partners and decide whether to support them through the transition. STOPAIDS supports this recommendation, and would argue that DFID should support civil society through the transition. Not only do civil society play a key role in reaching marginalised groups, they can also play an advocacy role in holding government to account during the transition process. For example, when the Global Fund exited Estonia in 2007, the Estonian government initially tried to walk back from their HIV funding commitments, but civil society responded swiftly and succeeded in forcing the government to reverse its position.
Director of STOPAIDS, Mike Podmore said,
‘ICAI’s report echoes STOPAIDS assessment that DFID must develop a transitions policy to guide programme managers. Poorly executed transitions throw away years of hard won development gains and have particularly drastic consequences for politically unpopular groups- including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, sex workers and transgender people who are at the greatest risk of acquiring HIV. When donors withdraw without ensuring governments and other donors will step up and takeover services, we will see the HIV epidemic resurge.’
The STOPAIDS Middle Income Country Symposium, hosted in March 2015 brought together DFID officials, donors, civil society, private sector and technical partners to discuss issues around DFID’s relationship with middle income countries, including transitions and funding for civil society.
Whether DFID should have exited middle income countries, was considered outside the scope of ICAI report. It is clear from the report, however, that income based classifications played a significant role in DFID’s decision making. Rather than withdrawing support as a country’s GNI hits an arbitrary threshold donors need to evaluate a range of factors that influence a country’s readiness for transition. Funding decisions based on GNI alone will not take into account critical determinants of a successful transition such as the political will, technical capacity and national efforts to prepare policies, systems and funding. Donors must develop more nuanced graduation and transition criteria, as set out in the Equitable Access Initiative.