UK 'exaggerated number of lives saved' by maternal health aid project

The UK government has been criticised by an aid watchdog for exaggerating the number of women’s lives it saved through its maternal health programmes.

A review, published by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai) on Tuesday, also said the number of lives saved “were significantly below what they could have been, given the level of investment”.

The watchdog said programmes by Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) had failed to significantly improve the quality and sustainability of maternal healthcare services in partner countries.

DfID spent about £4.6bn on programmes in health and other sectors between 2011 and 2015. Within this, £1.3bn focused more closely on maternal health, including family planning, reproductive healthcare and maternal and neonatal health. But Icai said investments were focused on short-term goals, and did not do enough to strengthen healthcare systems or target marginalised women or teenage girls.

By 2015, DfID claimed to have saved 103,000 women’s lives during pregnancy and childbirth, more than double its goal of 50,000. In an internal and unpublished review, this figure was revised down to 80,100.

Icai said the department relied on “unrealistic assumptions” to reach such figures. Compared with the review team’s observations in countries such as Malawi, the estimates appeared inflated.

Alison Evans, Icai’s chief commissioner, who led the review, said UK aid had expanded access to family planning, but added “… given the ambition, need and level of investment, the programmes fell short of what was required to achieve adequate progress.”

Health facilities in partner countries remained chronically under-resourced, with severe shortages of beds, healthcare workers and equipment, said Evans. In northern Malawi, an area visited as part of the review, heavily pregnant women camped outside health facilities for up to a month before giving birth.

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