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UK mega-fund falls short on developing country partnerships

A review of the United Kingdom's £1.5 billion (US$2bn) global development research fund has found that it comes up short in its partnerships with developing country researchers.

A review published this week by the country’s independent aid commission calls on the country’s Global Challenges Research Fund to come up with “clearer priorities and approaches” in research partnerships with the global South as one of its main recommendations.

“[The GCRF] could have done more to include southern partners (governments, funders and research communities) in the formulation of its research strategies and priorities, especially in the early stages when the fund’s direction was being decided,” the review states.

The review, released on 12 September, was prepared by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which examines UK aid spending.

The GCRF announced project funding worth £295m in July. The bulk of the winning projects involved African partners. Nevertheless, the review finds the fund could do more to involve a greater diversity of partners.

According to the review, the fact that all the collaborations are led by a UK partner is problematic because each individual leader can decide how much funding can go to partners in poorer countries. Moreover, in some cases there is a limit on how much money can go to developing country partners, it says.

“Often research councils place limits on the proportion of funding from any single grant that can go to southern partners, with some exceptions,” it states.

The ICAI argues that bringing in advice from organisations like the Department for International Development could help the UK research councils, which manage the grants, to establish funding strategies based on the research needs of developing countries.

The review added that the GCRF, despite its mandate to pick partners based on urgent challenges, has awarded funding predominantly to middle-income countries such as China, India, Kenya and South Africa.

This can be explained, the ICAI says, by existing relationships with these countries and UK institutions, principally through the Newton Fund, the UK’s other prominent development research fund.

“The speed at which the GCRF was rolled out is likely to have exacerbated the tendency to return to tried and tested partners,” the review states.

In general, the ICAI blames the rollout speed for a lack of focus and for spreading GCRF resources too thin.

Spokespersons for the GCRF and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have denied the claims made in the review.