Issue 17 - Article 17

The Performance and Accountability of Donor Aid Administrations: The Role of Parliaments

June 5, 2003
HPN staff
8 min read

Two noteworthy reports were published in August this year by the UK’s Parliamentary Select Committee on International Development (IDC): The Effectiveness of EC Development Assistance, and a Special Report on the UK’s response to the Mozambique floods earlier in the year. These reports are notable not simply by virtue of the issues they raise; they are important testimony to the role a well-informed parliamentary body can play in critically examining the performance of donor administrations.

EC development assistance

The report on European Community (EC) development assistance is the third on this subject from the Select Committee in as many years. Although the report recognises some improvements, the parliamentarians also ‘remain exasperated at the lack of progress’. The committee’s interest in the subject stems from the fact that 25–30 per cent of Britain’s international aid budget is spent by the EC. It wants to see this taxpayer’s money used effectively, and in line with the aims and objectives of the UK government’s White Paper on international development.

This is not currently happening: less than half of the EC’s development spending reaches the poorest countries. Although the IDC welcomes the reduction, after recent reforms, of Directorates-General (DGs) and Commissioners holding development funds from four to two, it still feels that priorities cannot be weighed on a global scale. The split between the DG Development and the DG External Relations is perhaps no coincidence. EC development aid is in fact being used to pursue two different objectives: traditional development, but also fostering stability on Europe’s periphery. Spending is directed increasingly at Central and Eastern Europe (through the PHARE programme), the former Soviet Union (TACIS) and the Mediterranean and Middle East (MEDA). One objective is to help applicant countries to converge with EC policy and European Union (EU) standards. There is no guarantee, however, that these funds have a poverty focus. The IDC wants the outcomes of these programmes audited against development objectives, and finds it ‘inexplicable’ that responsibility for Asia, home to half the world’s poor, remains outside DG Development.

Why is this important for humanitarian actors? Because the wider trend towards geographical selectivity (aid concentration in areas of geostrategic interest) and political conditionality on development aid mean that aid will become more concentrated, but probably not where it is most needed. Second, the discussion about ‘linking relief and development’ takes on a different dimension if development aid ‘doesn’t show up’. Third, because the reassertion of a political–security framework in international relations, albeit a different one from that which characterised the Cold War, is likely to lead to more restricted interpretations of what constitutes ‘humanitarian aid’. After years of critically debating humanitarian action, it seems that today’s priority debate should rather be about the objectives, strategies and conditions of our ‘development aid’. Should it be ‘pro-poor’, or just ‘pro-Europe’ (or ‘pro-US’)?

The IDC report draws attention to other persistent problems with EC aid. One is delays in disbursements, which now average four and a half years. Almost two years after Hurricane Mitch, none of the Euro 250m allocated to reconstruction in Nicaragua had been disbursed. Similarly, two weeks after the late-February floods in Mozambique, ECHO had made funding decisions, but no disbursements have yet taken place. The IDC makes a practical suggestion: a payment code of conduct for the EC. This would introduce penalty payments if the original amount contracted is not disbursed within the period agreed.

The huge underspend is not wholly the result of inefficiencies in the EC, but these remain one of the important causes. Understaffing is an issue, including in ECHO. This has given rise to massive subcontracting, for example in the form of Technical Assistance Offices (TAOs). The problem is that these remain outside proper budgetary and political control. As the EC member-states are largely opposed to an increase in staff, the Community is now likely to do what aid agencies have been doing for years, namely put staff on to programme budgets.

The IDC also takes note of the proposal, put forward by the EC itself in its ‘Communication on the Reform of the Management of External Assistance’ of May 2000, to establish a Quality Support Group. Among its functions would be ensuring that programming documents respect minimum quality standards and compliance with evaluation results; identifying best practice inside and outside the humanitarian sector so as to promote excellence and innovation; and disseminating results. It is intriguing to compare the statement in the ‘Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament’ (see RRN Newsletter 16, March 2000, p. 25) – that ‘ECHO is currently financing the delivery of humanitarian assistance at least as well as any other organisation, and probably better and in a more cost-effective manner than any other comparable international organisation’ – with a statement in the ‘Communication on the Reform of the Management of External Assistance’ to the effect that ‘the EC’s management performance has deteriorated over time to the point of undermining the credibility of its external policies and the international reputation of the European Union’. Is there a lack of communication within the Commission?


The IDC’s report on Mozambique inquires into the performance of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and of OCHA in responding to the February floods, and into the capacity of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to rapidly deploy assets for disaster response, along with the cost of doing so. It should be read in conjunction with the replies of DFID and OCHA, contained in appendices to the report, which complement and sometimes correct some of the ‘findings’ of the parliamentary committee.

One issue is the exact role and responsibility of OCHA in relation to the host government and the in-country UN team. OCHA sees its core tasks as being establishing a coordination centre, providing information and helping with appeals for international assistance. It does not see taking the lead in the overall assessment and disaster response as a core function. Its capacity remains hampered by a shortage of core funding and a low level of standby reserves.

DFID is congratulated for its speed and effectiveness. On 26 February, a day after renewed and heavy flooding, it had urged OCHA to send a new Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team, checked that there were no MoD assets in the vicinity, made available US$1m to keep the five South African army helicopters already working in Mozambique in operation, and activated its own emergency call-down arrangements to mobilise extra capacity. A few days later, several extra helicopters and an MoD support ship were chartered and deployed, as well as assets and trained staff from specialist UK rescue services. The report presents the figures quoted by the MoD for the deployment of its assets, and their relative cost. DFID’s reply confirms that using military forces and assets may not always be the most cost-effective or quickest option, but it does not challenge the MoD’s demand to send its own reconnaissance teams, and its wish to provide a perhaps expensive – but also ‘complete’ and therefore independent and flexible – ‘package’.

Finally, the report discusses whether Mozambique received enough development assistance before and after the disaster, and whether all or only part of its external debt should be cancelled. It does not draw more general conclusions, but praises Mozambique and its government for being committed to simultaneously pursuing macroeconomic reform and pro-poor strategies.

What is important here is not just the subjects or issues addressed. These reports are the outcome of an active and knowledgeable parliamentary committee critically inquiring into the performance of donor administrations, without party-political bickering, and putting these reports in the public domain. It is to be hoped that other national parliaments, as well as the European Parliament, do the same.


The Effectiveness of EC Development Assistance, Ninth Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on International Development, 8 August 2000.

Mozambique, Fifth Special Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on International Development, 7 August 2000.

Both reports are available at

The ‘Communication to the Commission on the Reform of the Management of External Assistance’ can be found on the Europa website at























Comments are available for logged in members only.