Millions of pounds of British aid to one of the world’s poorest countries has been spent on television programmes and a parliamentary advice line, an investigation has found.
Among the handouts in Bangladesh were £5 million for a Question Time-style show and £546,000 for a phone line announcing what debates are coming up in the country’s legislature.
Details of how the Department for International Development (DfID) spent UK taxpayers’ money in Bangladesh – where half of all children have stunted growth due to malnutrition – were obtained by a group of MPs who visited the country to investigate.
Last night one of the MPs called for a “fundamental overhaul” of the way aid is allocated.
The findings will fuel concerns among Conservative MPs over the aid system and over the Government’s decision to increase the aid budget while cutting public spending at home.
Last week Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, announced that overseas aid to India would end by 2015, after The Telegraph revealed that the government in Delhi had tried to stop the payments but was begged by DfID to carry on taking the money.
The Sunday Telegraph has highlighted a series of concerns, including the revelation that almost £500 million of overseas aid was diverted to consultants last year.
Bangladesh receives around £250 million a year from Britain’s £8 billion annual aid budget.
DfID has spent £5 million making Sanglap (“Dialogue”), a TV and radio show in which politicians and audience members debate current affairs.
Filmed at different locations around Bangladesh, which has a population of 160 million, it is made in partnership with a local TV production company and the BBC World Service Trust, a charity linked to the Corporation which runs media projects in developing countries.
A new series starts this month, and the BBC says that 21 million people have watched the show or heard it on radio since broadcasts began in 2005. Moderators of the debates have included Mithila Farzana and Shakeel Anwar, both local BBC presenters.
Further British aid spending in Bangladesh that the MPs have questioned include:
* £21.2 million on a road maintenance project, later pulled due to “fiduciary irregularities” after it emerged that less than 10 per cent of the funding had been spent on roads.
* £22.7 million to bail out debt-laden state-owned businesses.
* £13.1 million on training 1,700 civil servants to “develop and deliver pro-poor policy and practice”. The MPs say that this is an enormous sum, considering the average annual salary of such officials is around £600.
* More than £200,000 on encouraging the introduction of freedom of information laws.
Anne Main, Conservative MP for St Albans, said: “There needs to be a fundamental overhaul of how DfID chooses which projects it funds and how it reports what this spending has achieved.
“While out in Bangladesh we found charities treating cataracts for just £30 — it was easy to see the value of that. Unfortunately, DfID does not publish the business cases explaining why they support certain projects.
“I would say these civil servants need to go on transparency course — their language is opaque and tortuous. If I hear the word ’empower’ in a DfID document again I will scream.”
Mrs Main visited Bangladesh in September with two fellow Tory MPs, Bob Blackman and Nick De Bois, to inspect schools, charities and other projects looking for funding.
They have raised their concerns with Alan Duncan, the development minister responsible for aid to Bangladesh.
One source at DfID said: “Alan was impressed by the work these MPs have done. Many of the projects they have looked at took place under the Labour government.
“We feel the quality of language used by the Government has improved and that DfID is one of the most transparent aid departments in the world.”
Mr De Bois, the MP for Enfield North, said: “We went out there to find good projects that we thought the British taxpayer should be helping. We found many such schemes that are not getting that support, so when we got back we started to look at where DfID’s Bangladesh money is going.
“It was pleasing that the department has opened themselves up to us, but there is clearly some work where they cannot demonstrate a value for money case.”
DfID defended spending on encouraging foreign governments to develop freedom of information laws.
“The evidence shows that when ordinary people get access to information, they can and will hold those in power to account,” a spokesman said.
DfID also said that paying off the debt of state-owned businesses helped the Bangladeshi government to wind them down and “concentrate on better value and more effective pro-poor development programmes”.
Earlier this year, Mr Duncan castigated civil servants at DfID for their overuse of such terms as “access”, “catalyse”, “showcase” and “going forward”, warning that “excessive use of jargon endangers DfID’s reputation”.
One DfID document reads: “We aim to increase Bangladeshis’ access to information through enactment of a progressive right to information law, empowerment of individuals and civil society organisations to demand information to advocate their interests, and facilitate change in culture and capacity of public officials to supply information.”
Source: The Telegraph