FCDO launch offers opportunity for more coherent policy but depends on better data

The launch of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) “charged with using all the tools of British influence” creates an opportunity for more coherent policies towards developing countries, but realising this opportunity depends on better data collection and use across government .

Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, has outlined 15 principles for the new department to support greater policy coherence. UK tax payers would also benefit from more coherent policies, as effective non-aid policies can be worth much more than aid spending. 

Just look at Nigeria – the UK spent an average of £240m on aid a year over the last 10 years, but improvements in non-aid policies could have been worth much more. For example:

  • Two corrupt payments out of Nigeria facilitated by a UK bank, alerted to but not acted on, by the National Crime Agency’s predecessor, were worth 2 years of aid spending.
  • Nigeria has asked for the return of stolen assets – it suspected at least $37 billion was routed through the UK in 2014-15. Returning a fraction of this would be worth many years aid spending. 
  • Cleaning up oil spills by the Nigerian subsidiary of UK-listed Shell has been estimated to cost at least $1bn, around 3 years’ worth of aid spending. The UK promotes awareness of voluntary guidelines on responsible business conduct but campaign groups argue that stronger rules are needed.

A huge range of UK policies affect developing countries beyond aid spending. They include anti-money laundering controls, return of stolen assets, investment and trade promotion, arms exports, trade agreements, tax treaties, policies on the environmental and human rights performance of UK multinationals, and transparency requirements for natural resource payments.

The UK has taken a leading role on several of these (e.g. transparency of payments for natural resources; tackling secret company ownership, modern slavery) and has world renown expertise in international development. But there is much more that could be done. The creation of new department with a new remit and approach is an opportunity to do so. 

A first step towards more coherent policy is to collect and publish relevant data: data that makes it possible to review and improve the performance of departments and public bodies with regard to the impact of their policies on developing countries, going beyond aid spending.

The good news is that there are a range of existing data sets, which are sufficiently complete and disaggregated to country level, that can already be drawn upon. These include trade in goods and services, CDC investments, business supported by UK export finance, and arms export licences. More data is emerging from transparency obligations imposed on UK companies, notably the publication of extractives payments to governments for natural resources.

However, in many other other areas data is published without a country level disaggregation, datasets are incomplete, or data is not collected at all. For example, the UK’s work on returning stolen assets and anti-money laundering controls aren’t reported by country, making it hard to know how much anti-corruption efforts are benefiting developing countries. UK direct investment data is missing for around half of African countries, making it hard to measure the effectiveness of African investment promotion activities. A small unit in DIT promotes the OECD’s guidelines for responsible business conduct to UK multinational enterprises, including those operating in developing countries, but awareness and implementation of the guidelines isn’t measured, making it hard to assess the effectiveness of its work.

Measuring and reviewing government performance using relevant data is already widely recognised as best practice, including by the NAO and Institute for Government, and necessary for government accountability. In practice the challenges of collecting and disaggregating data will vary considerably. In some cases, data already exists but needs collating and publishing. In others the design of new metrics will need to be carefully considered and systems upgraded. In addition, responsibility for collecting data lies across multiple departments and agencies. 

But improvements are achievable. Measuring the UK’s environmental performance is also complex with responsibilities across Whitehall, but government has defined and has started reporting on a wide ranging set of environmental metrics. Given the global challenges now being faced, the effort to collect better data on the UK’s international interactions must surely be worth it.

Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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