James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): If the good people of Rochford and Southend, East had not elected me to this place, I would be returning to Africa. I want to talk a little about my experiences of business in Africa, because I believe that business and free trade are more likely to alleviate poverty than any other activity.
In the early 1990s, I was working in the City of London, and I told my employers at my annual appraisal that I was bored. They said, "Well, why don't you take this job in Swaziland?" I did not really know the continent, and certainly did not know where Swaziland was, but I took up that opportunity. Initially, I felt guilty sat behind a desk, because in my mind, at that time, compassionate people in Africa were aid workers, who dug ditches and, in many ways, lived in
30 Jun 2005 : Column 1527
poverty themselves. Now, however, I know that Africa needs business men and bankers, specialists, financial markets and advisers. A colleague of mine who went out to Africa a few years before me set up a local stock exchange in Botswana, and went on to generate an awful lot of wealth for that country.
As a banker I was called many things, and I am sure that I shall be called worse things as a politicianbut at the bank I saw that although many people look on bankers in a negative way, we lubricated the economy, allowing speedier development and, ultimately, less poverty. I went on to work in the Ivory Coast for a Belgian bank, and in Botswana for a British bank. Indeed, I met my wife in Swaziland.
In my experience, we need free trade and free electionsin that order. However, the term "fair trade" concerns me. It highlights inequalities in trade, and it is right to do so, but Governments should not decide what is fair, markets shouldand the African marketplace is no different from any other.
I have a number of clients involved with the sugar industry, and I have visited sugar factories in communities across Swaziland and Uganda. The factories tend to be in remote locations; the lucky ones get jobs there, but there is certainly a lot of poverty, particularly with seasonal workers. It makes me feel sick to think of the subsidies that the first world gives out within the sugar industry. It is duplicitous to take with one hand and give with the other, and then ask for praise for doing that. The sooner we abandon the common agricultural policy and have genuinely free trade among nation states, the better.
I also want to mention some concerns about some of the charitable works carried out for Africa's benefit in the United Kingdom. All too often we paint Africa in the worst possible light, to solicit donations and activity. I am concerned that events such as Live 8 and the events that preceded it pigeonhole Africa and Africans. The countries in which I have lived and worked have been poor, but there has been enormous spirit therein many ways a greater spirit than we sometimes see in the United Kingdom. There is also more entrepreneurship, with people selling produce and so on, and a positive spirit. We need to reflect that positive view of Africa, too.
I also want to comment on the HIV/AIDS pandemicnot on the social side of the problem but on the economic development element. In Botswana I managed 750 staff, one third of whom either had full-blown AIDS or were HIV positive. As well as creating a medical problem and a social problem for the families, that has an enormous impact on business in the country, with massive numbers of people being employed to cover for those who are too sick, when the drugs are not working. That in turn has a knock-on effect on poverty within a country.
The intellectual capital of the nation is dying prematurely. One third of the staff who worked for me were affected, but among the graduates coming out of the university the proportion was much higherso literally, the future of the nation was dying.
30 Jun 2005 : Column 1528
We would all have a problem imagining what would happen if we were diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, but imagine one third of all people in this country being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Imagine the impact that that has on the psychology of the whole nation.
I want to be brief, so I shall draw my comments to a close, and I want to end on a positive note. I believe that Africa does not have to deteriorate. The continent is not doomed to failure. Friends and colleagues with whom I have worked across Africa are strong and resourceful people, in what can often be a land of plenty. I believe that as politicians, we need to help them establish free trade and free electionsand the rest will follow.
Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): We have come a long way since the days when our nation's aid policy was little more than a tool for big business assisting market penetration and furthering the reaches of our commerce, but hastening the decline of African nations into further poverty and helplessness. Such short-termism led the 1980s to be called the lost decade by those working for Africa's development. I am glad that this Government have given much time to correcting such injustices since coming to power in 1997.
Thanks to our first years in power, policies that led to events such as the Pergau dam affair have been legislated against. That has increased the effectiveness and benefits of our assistance to poor countries. Today we stand at the cusp of another landmark in our effort to support the people of Africa. The radical proposals to offer debt relief, increased spending on aid and enhanced access to the world's trading systems for poor countries, as outlined to the House in recent days by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development, have my wholehearted support.
Before I describe my concerns and ambitions with regard to Africa policy, I want to emphasise just how significant this country's contribution to international development has been in recent years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said in his eloquent maiden speech, it will be a fine achievement when our spending on aid reaches the UN target figure of 0.7 per cent. of GNP, but we shall then join a select group of only five nations.
Our policy directives that cut conditionality, encourage spending on health and education and eradicate the hypocrisy of tied aid have placed Britain at the forefront of development practice, and should be a source of great pride to the people of our country. However, as the campaign to make poverty history reaches its climax, having successfully mobilised a whole nation, we must stress that what will be achieved at this year's great conferences will be but one milestone on an extremely long road. Significant though it is and painstaking though the work involved has been, we must all prepare ourselves and our constituents for the fact that many more victories will need to be won before the people of Africa unlock the potential of their great continent. History may well recall this year as the turning point in Africa's renaissance, but it is our job, in the here and now, to look forward and see just how our assistance may be put to best use.
First, I want to raise an issue involving the two leading African institutions, the African Union and NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa's
30 Jun 2005 : Column 1529
Development. The Commission for Africa's report repeatedly stresses the importance of those institutions as arbiters of aid and good governance for the region. I wholeheartedly support that sentiment, but I would like the possibility of strengthening and reforming those institutions to be investigated, so that they could be better equipped for the challenges ahead.
It is with regret that I point out the failure of those institutions to deal adequately with the situations that they faced in Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Sudan. On each occasion, intervention by northern powers was eventually needed, and often occurred regrettably late owing to the failure of the African Union to deal decisively with what was happening. Today we mourn the suffering of ordinary Zimbabwean people at the hands of their country's pernicious dictator, a situation on which the African Union seems unable or unwilling to act. If the African Union is fully to earn the trust of us donors, it must demonstrate time and again to the people whom it serves that it is willing to fight for social justice and good governance.
A lesson that we Europeans have learned recently is that transcontinental union must fully serve the needs of every citizen, not just its political elite, if the trust of citizens is to be bestowed on it. We should not shy from a reform agenda in our Africa policies. That would be perfectly in keeping with the philosophy of a Government who have offered investment in return for reform in many domestic policies since coming to power.
There are many links in the chain leading from Government assistance to application in the field. Often the weakest link is the last, where aid money is actually spent and distributed among the grass roots. There are several reasons for that, one of which is the difficulty in finding lots of field workers with the capacity and skills required to do such a difficult job well. Another is the challenge of working in communities that often lack the infrastructure and representative leadership through which to work. We must therefore focus much of our attention on ensuring that those administering our aid budget in the field are fully trained and supported, and on ensuring that the community structures and representation are in place to make the link between aid worker and community seamless.
The increasing role of non-governmental organisations has changed the nature of aid in recent years. At their best, NGOs can form a bond with local communities that would be impossible for national and multinational donors to achieve, and they can offer an extremely efficient solution to developmental challenges. But we must also accept that poor practice exists, and now that we are increasing funding to Africa so dramatically, public and media scrutiny of NGO activity will surely be heightened.
I want to see an increase in the independent monitoring of all development work, including NGO activity in Africa. The fact remains that many of the communities in which aid work is carried out are poorly educated, poorly connected and poorly represented. They are communities without a voice, and as such they are rarely in a position to speak out when poor practice occurs. Due to the competitive funding process, it is a rarity for organisations to admit failure voluntarily,
30 Jun 2005 : Column 1530
which is a shame, because the developmental sector would benefit tremendously from greater sharing of information and from the shared learning of experience.
It would be a great sadness if the public were to become disheartened or cynical about assistance to Africa. That is why we need to be honest about the challenges of working there, to be honest about the time that it will take to achieve success, and to do all that we can to promote transparency in the aid processfrom top to bottom. For the first time in a generation, there is real cause for optimism among those of us who care about Africa's future and its people, cultures and ecology. If we fail in our endeavours this year, the opportunity could well be lost for yet another generation. We cannot let this happen. It would be unforgivable.