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New African Initiative

1.29 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York): I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn) to what I believe is his first full debate as a Minister. I was very pleased when he was appointed to his new job. The appointment will obviously be good for him, but I am sure that it will also be good for the United Kingdom and our international development policies.

According to the Order Paper, the debate is entitled "Millennium Africa Programme". When I sought the debate just 10 days ago, the initiative had that name, but when it was launched last week in Lusaka at the 37th summit of the Organisation of African Unity, it changed the name to the new African initiative. For the sake of clarity now and in years to come, I hope that Hansard will retitle the debate accordingly.

I shall try to explain why we should take an interest in Africa. Politics is a pragmatic business. Its first rule is to concentrate on what matters to the people whom we represent. The second rule is to concentrate on what we can do something about and change for the better. Africa matters to Britain and its people, including my constituents, for three reasons.

First, Africa has a presence in the UK, and there has been contact between this country and Africa for centuries. Many people of African origin have settled here. Indeed, this country has many people of African origin whose families have been settled here for centuries, and for many years people from this country have settled in Africa.

Much of our music, particularly popular music, has clear roots in Africa. We can trace it back through the black music of the United States and the music that came across the Atlantic in the middle passage. Many of our artists take inspiration from Africa. Picasso and Henry Moore used to draw African carvings and so developed their art.

At one level, there is a bit of Africa in all of us: human beings first evolved 3 million or 4 million years ago in Africa. However, humans first emigrated from Africa only 100,000 years ago, when they crossed into the middle east. The first humans came to Europe only 40,000 years ago. Human beings have therefore been in Europe for perhaps 1 per cent. of the time that we have been on earth—a tiny proportion of the time of human history.

Secondly, we need to take an interest in Africa for humanitarian reasons. Churches, charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid and campaign groups such as Drop the Debt say that we politicians and representatives have a responsibility to help people in poorer parts of the world. They are right to say so, and we should respond.

As an Under-Secretary of State for Social Security for a time, I, among others, had some responsibility for the programme to tackle poverty in Britain. It is a terrible fact that when we came to power four years ago, one child in three born in the UK was born into a household living in poverty, which is defined as one living on less than half of average incomes. That is a serious issue, and our constituents are right to tell us that charity begins at home. We need to address issues of poverty in the UK and we do.

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However, charity does not begin and end at home, because we have responsibilities to other human beings throughout the world. The poverty faced by almost half the population of Africa, who live on less than US$1—60p or 70p—a day, is quite different from the poverty faced by people in Britain. As a result, many Africans do not have access to basic human needs and things that we take for granted, such as clean uninfected drinking water, an adequate diet, basic primary education and primary health care.

Thirdly, we need to take an interest in Africa for reasons of self-interest. Britain wants access to Africa's minerals and agricultural products. For example, chocolate could not be made in my constituency without the ingredients being imported from Africa.

The whole world faces enormous environmental problems such as global warming and problems caused by infectious diseases, such as HIV, but we should remember that 90 per cent. of the world's AIDS orphans live in Africa. Malaria, too, wreaks a terrible toll on Africa's productivity and may become a problem in Europe if global warming gathers pace. If malaria was eradicated, it is estimated that Africa's gross domestic product would increase by about 15 or 20 per cent. Problems such as the trade in illicit drugs and human trafficking have no respect for national frontiers. We cannot protect our interests in Europe if we ignore problems abroad.

It is in Africa's interest that it should seek solutions to those problems. African leaders must take the lead; it is their continent. But it is also clearly in our interest to work in partnership with them to look for solutions. I am especially glad that we have a Prime Minister who has risen to the challenge, who has taken a lead in the developed world in pressing for debt cancellation, and who, at the end of the present spending period, will have increased our aid budget by some 70 per cent. In 2004 it will be 70 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1997. The Prime Minister has made refocusing our aid on poverty reduction a primary aim.

The Prime Minister told the Millennium summit at the United Nations last September:

Speaking in Edinburgh during the general election on 25 May, the Prime Minister pledged:

For the first time in a generation we have a Prime Minister with a strong personal commitment to Africa, and at the same time a new generation of African leaders who are committed to thorough economic and political reform and to doing things differently, which is what is needed.

Since decolonisation, Western aid to Africa has created many development successes, but we must accept that in macro terms western aid policy on Africa has failed. So, indeed, have the economic and development policies pursued by African leaders: the average output per head in Africa is lower now than it was 30 years ago. To achieve the international development targets set by the Secretary of State for International Development, to which she persuaded

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other developed countries to subscribe—one of which was to halve the proportion of people in the world in extreme poverty by the year 2015—will require 7 per cent. annual growth between now and then. That is a difficult target to meet; even the best-performing economies in Africa—the modernising, forward- looking, reforming countries—are achieving only about 6 per cent. growth. We need to go further.

The Government have recognised the need for change. Since its creation, the Department for International Development has substantially changed the role and remit of British aid, with the focus on aid to the poorest. That change of focus was explained in detail in the two White Papers that the Department published in the last Parliament.

This debate is about the new African initiative, which was launched last week at the Organisation of African Unity summit in Lusaka. That initiative is important because it comes from Africa, is led by Africans and involves Africa finding solutions to its own problems. In a speech at the Guildhall in London in June, the South African President Thabo Mbeki said:

I cannot summarise in a few minutes everything that is in a 27-page document, but I can tell the House why I was impressed with what I read. The new initiative talks about what Africa will do to tackle Africa's problems. It talks about strengthening conflict prevention and macroeconomic stability. One reason why African growth is low is because job creation is poor and investors are concerned about the lack of economic stability and the potential for losing their investments. We now have African leaders who recognise that they must address the economic conditions if development is to succeed.

The initiative talks about instituting transparent legal and regulatory frameworks for financial markets. I have spoken to people who want to do business in Africa but find that they do not know where their company stands in law. It is important for them to know that otherwise they find it difficult to do business. As well as speaking about basic financial structures and addressing the financial problems, the initiative discusses the basic development task of extending education, training and health care. It considers gender equality and the problem of establishing law and order, which is extremely important in Africa.

I was impressed that the initiative does not begin and end with aid. Aid accounts for some 5 per cent. of the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa, while economic endeavour accounts for the rest. If progress is to be made, it must be done through home-grown economic development, albeit with support from the aid of western countries. The new initiative calls for thoroughgoing economic and political reform in Africa, but also for reform in the west. It asks us to examine the trade barriers that we impose and the farm subsidies that make it impossible for African countries to export agricultural produce to us, and to examine the terms of debt relief. Aid is included in the document, but it is much lower down the list.

We should consider trade. Africa is home to 10 per cent. of the world's population, but accounts for only 2 per cent. of world trade. In 1997, export earnings in

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Africa rose by 2 per cent. only to fall in the following year by 16 per cent. Why did that happen? Out of the 48 sub-Saharan African countries, 39 are dependent on only two primary commodities, with agricultural produce and minerals accounting for 50 per cent. of exports. There is a pressing need for African countries to increase and diversify their exports, but their ability to do so depends on us. For every exporter, there must be an importer and, unless we change trade policy in Europe, Africa's opportunity to meet the development targets that we set will be severely compromised.

I was extremely pleased by the response on 4 July of the Secretary of State for International Development to my parliamentary question. She listed a wide range of activities within her Department to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to make sure that their interests are properly represented at international trade negotiations. Our Government must be level-headed about the new African initiative. There have been many bold African development initiatives in the past. The Lagos plan of action in 1980, like many others, was launched with a fanfare of publicity but did not achieve real results. The new African initiative will work only if it is led by reforming and modernising African leaders, and we should work with them to make a success of it.

The Prime Minister said in an article that he wrote jointly with Thabo Mbeki in The Guardian on 14 June:

The Prime Minister will raise the initiative at the G8 summit in Genoa this weekend and has invited Thabo Mbeki to attend the summit and speak from an African perspective about why the initiative is necessary.

The most interesting and attractive feature of the new initiative is that it is not just about aid. It is about trade, investment, financial liberalisation, democracy, transparency and conflict prevention. It is a cross-cutting policy and, to do justice to it, we must formulate a cross-cutting response. Will the Minister ensure that his Department raises the trade issues with the Department of Trade and Industry? Will he raise African concerns about EU food subsidies with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Will he raise the ambitions in the African initiative for a global health fund with the Department of Health?

I know that there is already good interdepartmental working between the Department for International Development and other Departments on many issues. The Secretary of State for International Development chairs the committee for the Africa conflict prevention fund. I recognise that the machinery of Government is for the Prime Minister, but will my hon. Friend draw this debate to the attention of No. 10 so that the Prime Minister can consider how to co-ordinate in a cross-cutting way all the UK Government Departments that need to examine their policies in relation to the Africa initiative to ensure that we as a Government pull in the same direction?

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) : It is a great pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for

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City of York (Hugh Bayley). He raised a most important and topical subject, and I understand that his long interest and great expertise in development matters will now be at the service of the International Development Select Committee, whose membership we were able to agree on Monday. I particularly warmed to his reminder of the patterns of migration around the globe, in which Africa played an important part, because it encourages us to reflect on our interdependence and the fact that globalisation actually started a long time ago.

As my hon. Friend said, the challenges facing Africa are enormous. He referred to the 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who live on less than a dollar a day. Whereas during the past 30 years Asia has significantly reduced poverty, Africa has not. Its share of world trade is just 2 per cent., and 40 per cent. of Africa's savings leave the continent. Partly as a result of that, it is short of investment. It faces trade barriers, especially in agriculture. I assure my hon. Friend that we constantly raise the points that he made about trade, not least in arguing that the World Trade Organisation should take them on board in considering topics for a new round. Above all else, Africa urgently needs economic growth. My hon. Friend reminded us that to reach the international development targets Africa has to grow at 7 per cent. a year, but it is currently achieving just under half that, which is barely enough to maintain income per head.

To complete the list of challenges facing Africa—as if that list were not enough—there are many obstacles to economic growth and sustainable development, including poor governance, corruption, unfinished or unstarted reform, conflict, debt and HIV-AIDS, in regard to which, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government have announced that they will contribute $200 million to the global health fund, and in Brussels last week I argued that the EC should make a significant contribution. We may have further news at the Genoa summit. On its own, HIV-AIDS is a catastrophe for the continent and is a subject worthy of debate in its own right.

Rising to such a challenge is exactly what the new African initiative is all about. Its existence as an initiative represents recognition by the countries of Africa that they must do something for themselves to change the continent's future. The initiative brings together the Millennium Africa plan, the Global Compact and the Omega plan. Some joins are visible, but through the medium of last week's Organisation of African Unity summit the initiative now has "Made in Africa" clearly stamped on it. We want more exports stamped "Made in Africa", which will be a sign that economic progress is being made. That ownership, the fact that it comes from Africa, is the most important aspect of the initiative. I agree with my hon. Friend that without that sense of ownership the necessary change will be much harder to bring about.

Like my hon. Friend, the Government warmly welcome the principles on which the initiative is based—especially the commitment to democracy and human rights, which is an essential building block of stability. We welcome the explicit recognition of the importance of investment in economic growth and trade to bringing

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about the requisite change. We welcome the fact that the initiative sees both the potential for poverty reduction and the need for greater equality—an objective of which we must not lose sight. The last time that my hon. Friend and I were in this Chamber we were debating poverty in the United Kingdom—the first debate on that subject for about 20 years.

We welcome the recognition of mutual interdependence and the need for global governance, global rules and an international financial institutional framework to support countries in transition. We welcome the fact that the initiative embraces international development targets and poverty eradication as a long-term objective. We recognise that it does not shy away from recognising the scale of the problems facing Africa, particularly in political and economic governance. It is candid about the fact that action needs to begin at home and it has several constructive proposals for reforming the relationship with donors to create a more equal partnership. We would all readily sign up to those principles. The question, however, is how they will be delivered. As my hon. Friend put it: what shall we do to support the initiative? In the remaining time I shall deal with that issue.

One of the most profound changes in development policy took place under the leadership of the Secretary of State for International Development, and my hon. Friend kindly referred to her leadership role since 1997. I refer to the recognition that in the long term we do no favours to developing countries by running parallel structures and delivering services through our own direct aid effort and that of other donors unless we also encourage, support and enable developing countries to do it for themselves.

Africa probably provides the greatest regeneration challenge in the world. If the effort springs from within, there is a much greater chance of success. To answer my hon. Friend's question about the first contribution that we can make, it is in fact the one that we are already seeking to make—to focus on countries with large numbers of poor people and Governments committed to the principles of change set out so clearly in the initiative. That means supporting better governance, pro-poor economic growth, conflict prevention, better health and education, sustainable management of the environment and improved infrastructure, and creating a climate in which business can do good by doing good business in those countries.

If we want signs of progress—it is always important to remember progress because that gives us the heart to rise to the next challenge—we should consider Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique. Mozambique is the fastest growing country in Africa. Where things are not working, the scale and nature of our intervention will need to be different, not least because so many countries in Africa are emerging from or still are in conflict. Stability is the essential building block of progress. Without stability, one cannot address the other issues.

Under the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, the total amount of debt relief already agreed for African countries is $25.5 billion. There is more to come for the remaining countries, provided that we can deal with the issue of conflict. In saying that Africa is a priority for the Government and the Prime Minister—in the light of the two speeches cited by my hon.

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Friend—we are putting our money where our words are. DIFD's bilateral programmes in Africa have almost doubled in size, from £297 million in 1997-98 to an estimated £594 million in 2000-01 and will grow further to some £687 million by 2003-04. That is, by any measure, a substantial commitment of resources. It is particularly important when one considers that overall international aid flows to Africa are declining. Another question that we need to ask as a result of the debate is what contribution other countries will make to that process, including how we can get more private investment into infrastructure improvement in the African continent.

That brings us neatly to the dialogue that is needed to increase the momentum created by the agreement of the initiative, starting at the G8 summit in Genoa in a few days' time. We need to be honest about the fact that there will be much hard talking. Some tensions are laid bare in the initiative between different countries in Africa. We need to be realistic about the scale and timing of donor support, and we need to consider carefully how the initiative can work with existing co-operation at national and international level to spread

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best practice. We are particularly interested to see how the institutional framework proposed by those who have signed up to the initiative will work in practice. One needs those mechanisms to make a difference and to turn the principles into reality. The challenges are enormous but not insurmountable. Africa has much to gain from that process through increased trade and investment, better infrastructure and communications and greater access to knowledge. To reap those benefits in the months and years ahead will require much political will and commitment.

I conclude by quoting the succinct conclusion of the document. It states:

We agree with that. It is an opportunity that Africa, and we, cannot afford to miss.

Question put and agreed to.

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