The Department for International Development expanded the £145m International Citizen Service without clear evidence that the scheme was having a development impact, the National Audit Office has said.
The ICS was set up in 2011 to offer young people volunteering opportunities around the world, but the NAO’s evaluation of the scheme, published in a report today, says the impact the programme is having on development is "unclear".
The programme was initially launched as a pilot scheme that provided placements for about 1,200 UK volunteers and 720 in-country volunteers in developing countries between March 2011 and November 2012. It was expanded into phase one, which ran from April 2012 to August 2015, providing placements for 7,000 UK and 7,000 in-country volunteers.
It is now in phase two, which began in September 2015 and provides up to 10,000 of each sort of placement by 2019.
The report acknowledges that the programme has had some success: it is, for example, fulfilling its objectives to support volunteers’ personal development and help them become engaged citizens with an understanding of international development.
But on its third objective, to reduce poverty and encourage sustainable development in the countries to which volunteers are sent, the ICS "has not consistently demonstrated development impact" the report says.
Some evaluations of the pilot programme were carried out, but they were conducted very early on and were based on predictions rather than evidence, the report says. It adds that they were not completed until after DfID decided to go ahead with the full programme.
"This means that the department has expanded ICS without clear evidence of development impact," the report says.
"Since its expansion, more evidence of development impact is starting to become available, which the department should consider carefully in its future decision-making."
Evaluations completed since then have "drawn attention to the difficulties with demonstrating development impact", according to the report.
The most recent evaluation by the volunteering charity VSO, which has the contract to run the ICS programme that was finalised in October this year, "did identify some positive development outcomes linked to ICS", the report says.
"But it also concluded that these outcomes were not consistent across the programme and that it was not possible to assess with confidence that ‘changes are sustainable or have been sustained’," it adds.
The report says the programme missed some of its targets on encouraging young men and people with disabilities to volunteer.
For any further development of the programme, the report says, DfID needs to produce a plan to manage any transition to a new contract without a dip in performance; consider, as part of the business case, a range of options for securing development impacts to help it assess the programme; and to consider what delivery model would secure best value for money.
A DfID spokeswoman said: "The NAO rightly highlights that the International Citizen Service programme provides a life-changing opportunity for young people to help the world’s poorest, to fly the flag for global Britain overseas and build their own skills, confidence and job prospects.
"DfID continuously reviews all of its programmes, and the ICS is no exception. As the current phase of the programme comes to an end and we consider options for the future, we will take into account all feedback."