The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament in the United Kingdom. As part of its work, the NAO undertakes about sixty ‘value for money’ (VFM) studies of government departments and public bodies per year.
This work covers a range of issues and examines the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public spending. These reports are then considered by Parliament’s Committee of Public Accounts (the PAC), which seeks to draw lessons that can be applied to the future activity of the respective government department.
Value for money study
In 2009, the NAO completed its first VFM study that focussed on a country office of the Department for International Development’s (DFID). In Malawi, DFID has invested nearly £400 million of development aid across five years, from 2003 to 2008. The major part of the NAO VFM study was to examine DFID’s achievements against the objectives set out in DFID’s Country Assistance Plans for Malawi, including reasons for success or under-performance.
In association with Kadale Consultants (Malawi), we undertook the qualitative research study that served as a key input into the main NAO VFM report. The findings of this study were based on primary data collection undertaken in three districts in Malawi. The study ‘reality checked’ the performance of DFID interventions in agriculture (input subsidies), social protection (through cash transfers), and health (through the health Sector Wide Programme, or SWAP). The study also aimed to provide insights into the lives of ordinary people and officials, and in doing so, highlighted some of the real life challenges faced by ordinary citizens. The views of beneficiaries, district officials and local service providers (NGOs, health workers, Traditional Authorities, etc.) were captured in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. As a piece of qualitative research, all meetings were audio recorded alongside full transcripts and detailed notes. The transcripts were later analysed using a qualitative data analysis software packaged (MAXQDA).
The overall NAO report found that DFID’s programme in Malawi had contributed to poverty reduction, improved health outcomes, larger harvests and more effective governance. However, the study found that it was difficult to gauge the extent to which this progress can be attributed to aid from the UK, and because of this, DFID needed to have more robust measurements that would enable it to better address value for money.
Image © Overlanding Through Malawi. Photo Credit: Alan Green