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Africa (Children's Literacy)

3. Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): What steps he is taking to promote best practice in improving children's literacy in Africa. [25987]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The education for all global monitoring report, published today, highlights the continuing problem of children learning to read and write in sub-Saharan Africa. The UK is helping African countries to strengthen basic education, particularly for women and   girls. For example, in Zambia, where we support teaching children to read and write in their mother tongue before learning English, the programme has dramatically improved literacy rates.

Barbara Keeley: There are two objectives in the children's literacy strategy—to ensure that low literacy levels are lifted and, as my right hon. Friend noted, to close the gender equality gap. One of the millennium development goals is to close that gap by 2015, so will he say what progress is being made in that direction?

Hilary Benn: I share my hon. Friend's concern about the need to close the gender equality gap and to get all   the children in sub-Saharan Africa who are not attending primary school into classrooms. Fulfilling
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those objectives depends on the capacity of the Governments of developing countries to raise the finance, employ the teachers and build the schools. In particular relation to girls, the task is to address the other factors that prevent girls from getting to school. Something as practical as a lack of toilet facilities can make parents reluctant to send their daughters to school. Another factor could be the lack of clean water, because if water has to be fetched and carried from somewhere else, we know that that burden falls on girls and women. If girls have to fetch and carry water, they cannot go to school.

School fees present another obstacle that has to be overcome, as they prevent poor families from sending their children to school. If those poor families have to make a choice, they may choose to pay fees for a boy but not for a girl. Those are the problems that we must address if we are to help developing countries reach the 2015 target.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Secretary of State worried about the brain drain of teachers who leave Africa in favour of other countries? That will affect progress towards achieving children's literacy in Africa. What steps could be taken or incentives offered to encourage trained teachers to remain in their countries and help increase literacy across Africa?

Hilary Benn: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the problem. As he knows, the real problem involves the factors that drive teachers and other skilled professionals out of developing countries, such as poor   pay and working conditions, and the lack of opportunity for career and professional development. In the course of 2005, various commitments have been made to help developing countries improve pay and working conditions for teachers and provide more career and professional development, and the British Government have also increased aid to that end. Another obstacle is the lack of housing for teachers in rural areas: if there is no house to live in, is it any wonder that teachers are reluctant to go and work in a remote rural community? That is what we have to address, and our increased aid is supporting that effort.

For example, the new President of Burundi has just abolished school fees. On the first day, 500,000 children turned up for school, 300,000 of whom had not been to school before. Although there is still the same number of teachers in the schools there, we have given the country some financial assistance to help it to begin to address that enormous challenge.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State consider the BBC World Service, the Open University and the British Council coming together to create a web-based system to help literacy in Africa? Is there something we can do to enable that?

Hilary Benn: I welcome all steps and measures that those interested in the future of Africa's development are willing to take. In order to get access to the web, of course, people need a computer and electricity. We therefore need to recognise the order in which things have to change if students in Africa are to be able to take   advantage of proposals such as the one that my
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hon. Friend suggests. When I was in Rwanda a week ago   yesterday, I visited a school that has got some computers in use and hopes to get access next year to the internet for the first time in its students' lives. A very small number of children have access currently. Let us hope that we can see more taking advantage of it in the years to come.

Millennium Development Goals

4. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What discussions he has had with the United States on progress towards the United Nations millennium development goals. [25988]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): My right hon. Friend and I regularly hold discussions with members of the United States Administration on development issues, including progress towards the millennium development goals.

Danny Alexander: Given the enormous support shown for the millennium development goals by young people throughout the country, including those at Nairn academy, is it not disappointing that the Government have so far failed to use their leverage through the European Union and the G8 to convince the US to pay its fair share towards those goals? Rather than being seduced by the proximity and glamour of US power, should not the Prime Minister be using his influence on President Bush to persuade America to meet its international obligations?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman will know of the concern of the Prime Minister and the rest of the   Government about the lack of sufficient progress towards the millennium development goals, which was why we made Africa a key issue on the agendas of our G8 and EU presidencies this year. I am sure that he would want to pay tribute to the Prime Minister for his success in persuading the President of the United States to announce a doubling of aid to Africa between now and 2010.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we are to reach the millennium development goals, both the European Union and the United States need to make meaningful reductions in tariffs and subsidies at the ministerial conference in   December, as well as giving special differential treatment to the poorest nations?

Mr. Thomas: I agree that the trade talks in Hong Kong are hugely important. Although the movement that we have seen from the United States, and indeed from the European Union, is welcome, we want more movement from the US in terms of agricultural subsidies. We want stronger references to cotton and to special products if we are to achieve from the trade talks the outcome that we want and that is genuinely in the interests of developing countries.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In   considering the millennium development goal of eradicating poverty, does the Minister agree that the recent
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declaration of an emergency in Africa over tuberculosis, which is closely linked with the AIDS epidemic, is of serious concern? It is killing 500,000 people a year. What is his Department doing in response to that emergency, and   would he be willing to meet a delegation of parliamentarians, including myself, who recently visited Kenya, where we saw the impact of the disease and where life expectancy for a man is down to 41 years and falling?

Mr. Thomas: Either my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or I would be happy to meet the   delegation.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise TB. Along with malaria and HIV/AIDS, it is having a devastating impact on Africa and, indeed, many other parts of the world. He will be aware of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We hosted the replenishment conference for that fund in September and raised $3.7 billion for it. There will be a further funding conference next year, and we hope that further funding will be pledged.

Kashmir Earthquake

5. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What objectives he has set in providing assistance to the authorities in Pakistan and the victims of the recent earthquake. [25989]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): DFID's response to the south Asia earthquake helped to save the lives of those affected and will continue to support them through the winter months. To date, we have allocated £33 million for the immediate relief effort and are prepared to do more. Our immediate assistance has included search and rescue, provision of tents, blankets, tarpaulins and other supplies, funding of   air transport, including helicopters, and support to the United Nations, Red Cross and non-governmental organisations. In addition, the European Commission has pledged €93.6 million for relief and reconstruction. The UK's share of that is £11 million.

Tony Lloyd: Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that President Musharraf was right when he paid tribute to the role of the British Government and to my right hon. Friend. However, as winter approaches, many hundreds of thousands of people still face terrible conditions and possible death and the international community has not put in the effort that our Government have done. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the money pledged by the EU and other donors is delivered—and soon—because time to rescue the people in the mountains is disappearing quickly? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Chamber is far too noisy.

Hilary Benn: I share my hon. Friend's view about the race against time in which the world community and the   Government of Pakistan are engaged to save the lives of those who will otherwise freeze to death or die   of respiratory tract infections because they are out in the cold when winter arrives. I assure the House that we will deliver every penny that we have promised and the record so far shows that that is the case. We have
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made a great effort to bring the scale of the crisis to the attention of others in the international community. Nobody can be in any doubt about the short time left. That is why we need more money from others in the international community and more help on the ground to turn that money into support that gets to people in the remote mountain communities of Azad Kashmir and North-West Frontier Province.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): In the Government's capacity as president of the European Union, what efforts has the Secretary of State made to secure a fitting response from those member countries, highlighted by Oxfam and others, that have failed to donate to the Asian earthquake appeal? Is he aware that Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland and Austria have contributed no additional funds?

Hilary Benn: I can tell the hon. Gentleman what we   have done. Two days after the earthquake struck, we issued a presidency statement and I have now written twice to EU Development Ministers. Along with Jan   Egeland, I briefed them at the informal meeting of EU Development Ministers in Leeds on 24 October. The   issue was also raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 18 October. Every country should look deeply into its conscience and ask itself if it is doing all that it can to help people who are in desperate need.

Mr. Mitchell: May I suggest to the Secretary of State a specific way in which he could assist with that matter? After the Asian tsunami, the EU considered several trade measures to improve market access for the affected countries. Will he press the EU to liberalise its trade with Pakistan to promote economic recovery in that country? In particular, will he consider the inclusion of Pakistan in the generalised system of preferences—the GSP-plus—from which it was excluded earlier this year?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that, as the European Union   considers how it may provide support to the reconstruction process, it will be happy to look at all possible measures. Issues, and some difficulties, would arise from the proposal that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I simply say to him that the task of reconstruction will be big and take a long time. Our immediate concern has to be with helping to save the lives of those who are in desperate need as we speak. The time will come for reconstruction and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will attend the conference in Pakistan on 19 November. We will make a commitment there to support the reconstruction, in the same way as Britain has played an honourable role in helping to save the lives of those affected by that terrible catastrophe.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I agree with the   Secretary of State about the ongoing gravity of the situation, but he should bear in mind the fact that small charities such as Shelterbox are delivering more tents than big Government in the UK. When it takes three weeks to deliver Chinooks to the region, does the Secretary of State agree that lessons need to be learned from the response to the emergency? When the dust settles, will he review the
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speed and effectiveness of the emergency response from   this country—non-governmental organisations and Government?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to review the effectiveness, but I emphatically reject the implied criticism in the hon.   Gentleman's comment that somehow the British Government have been slow. The fact is that we were the first country in the world to send search and rescue teams. We have provided 5,500 tents, 27,000 blankets and 30,000 tarpaulins. We could do that so quickly precisely because we had prepared and we had those things in stock. We have now funded 65 flights for the   Disasters Emergency Committee, helping the NGO sector to bring in supplies. We are currently trying to find a way to lift the shelterboxes waiting to go. I simply ask Shelterbox to link up with one of the DEC agencies, as that is the most effective and easiest way of getting help to the region.

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