Sunday, January 12, 2014

UK Aid to Bangladesh - what is actually going on?

There appears some confusion in the media in Bangladesh about the UK government's aid support to th country.

On 10 January, New Age broke the story that the UK, US and Dutch governments, along with the UNDP, were reviewing whether to continue their support for projects involving the Bangladesh parliament. The Daily Telegraph, published a similar story the following day focusing only on the UK review only.

The articles both only dealt with parliamentary projects - that is work being undertaken with the Bangladesh parliament - and the articles made it clear that it was only dealing with, in aid terms, a small amount of money. The Daily Telegraph article stated:
UK Aid has budgeted to spend £56.3 million over a five-year period on the two parliamentary support projects that are now under review, with over £12 million remaining to be spent this and next year. Not all of the project’s money is spent on parliamentary activities.

In light of the 'election', donor support for parliamentary projects are for obvious reasons going to be particularly sensitive. Having issued critical statements, can donors really be seen to be supporting the newly constituted parliament? 

In relation to the UK, both articles quoted Warren Daley, the spokesperson for the British government based at the UK embassy. In the New Age it stated
Warren Daley, a spokesperson for the United Kingdom, told New Age that it was ‘reviewing’ its projects ‘to take into account the emerging political situation and which aspects of the projects it will be appropriate to take forward.’
This is the full quote which was e-mailed to me by him:
“There are two UK aid projects that involve working with the Bangladesh parliament, Strengthening Political Participation (SPP) and Strengthening Public Expenditure Management (SPEMP). We review regularly the shape of such long-term programmes. We are reviewing both to take into account the emerging political situation and which aspects of the projects it will be appropriate to take forward.

Our Strengthening Political Participation programme seeks to contribute to a Bangladeshi political system that is more capable, accountable and responsive. It supported election preparations by helping the Election Commission update the voters’ register and train polling officials, and developed a new electronic system for the Election Commission to manage candidate administration and election results. The programme also promotes broader participation in Bangladesh’s political parties and strengthens their capacity to access and use information.

SPP is midway through its 5-year programme and covers activity that is not directly related to the elections, such as working with Bangladeshi NGOs to promote anti-corruption advocacy and awareness, and improve the quality of their input to policy making and legislation.”
The article also quoted the United States spokesperson based at the embassy in Dhaka as saying about the US projects:
‘We will look at [this programme] and other democracy and governance programmes to determine how they might be most effective in the current environment.’
The full quote that was e-mailed to me was:
USAID programs in Bangladesh are always being evaluated and fine-tuned to adjust to local realities. 
We will look at PRODIP activity and other democracy and governance programs to determine how they might be most effective in the current environment.
Both articles were focused only on the parliamentary programmes - not on overall aid.

It appears that the articles were misquoted or represented in the Bangladesh media suggesting that the British government was reviewing all of its aid, or indeed cutting it. This is not stated anywhere in the articles.

In response, perhaps, to this, Robert Gibson, the British High Commissioner issued a statement to the following affect. I have not seen the full statement, but this is what has been quoted in the newspapers in Dhaka.
‘UK aid is a partnership between the people of Britain and the people of Bangladesh. We continue to support the poorest and most marginalised people in Bangladesh as part of our global effort to support the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.’
This has been interpreted in the Bangladesh media to be in contradiction to my reports.

However, if you actually read what it says, that is not at all the case. It does not in any way dispute that projects relating to parliamentary projects are being reviewed.

In fact Gibson's statement is very general and does not commit the British government to very much at all.

The British government could for example - and I am not in any way saying that they will do this - cut the aid by one half and it can still quite accurately say that it is supporting the most marginalised people in Bangladesh, just not by as much.

Moreover what is notable is that the statement does not mention the Bangladesh 'government'. UK aid is a partnership, the statement says, 'between the people of Britain and the people of Bangladesh.'

As to what will happen, I guess that the the UK government (as indeed other governments) will be reluctant to cut their aid support to Bangladesh - but will be under pressure to do something. The UK does not provide what is known as 'budget support' to the Bangladesh government, which is generally the most vulnerable to cutting in these situations. 70% of UK aid goes to NGOs or international organisations, with only 30% going to the government for particular programs. It is possible that this 30% is vulnerable to review - but decisions will not be taken in a rush, I guess.

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