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4.33 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I start by strongly supporting the Secretary of State’s comments about the way in which this debate has been shoved on to the schedule, at the fag end of a Thursday afternoon, when many Members cannot be here. As a result of the short time available for debate, few Members will be able to take part. It is more than a year since we had a debate on international development, and I hope that the usual channels will conclude that that is simply not good enough.

Let me start by making the Conservative position absolutely clear. We strongly support the Government’s goals for international development as set out by the Secretary of State today. Support for the British contribution to international development is not a Labour or Conservative policy, but a British commitment, and the Secretary of State knows that he can rely on support from across the House. I will go further: at a time when the Government’s failures—whether on public service reform or across the
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spectrum of Home Office policy—are the currency of practically every news bulletin and comment column in our press, the Secretary of State and the Minister are, uniquely, doing a good job, and we applaud them for it. From time to time, we have differences of opinion about how to make British policies more effective and how to reach the millennium development goals faster, but in many ways, however, the Government are on the right track.

The situation is not all doom and gloom. A few days ago, I heard about an HIV/AIDS clinic in Namibia that recently closed its doors, not because of a lack of funds but because the spread of new infections in the area had been curtailed. As the Secretary of State said, we have made good progress on polio, and far fewer children die from diarrhoea than was the case 20 years ago, because oral rehydration therapy is more widely available. Far too many children, however, continue to suffer. As the Secretary of State said in the House yesterday, and as he reiterated today, there are three times as many people on antiretrovirals as there were just 12 months ago.

There is a nucleus of African states whose Governments are increasingly committed to doing the right thing. People such as Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, are showing leadership. They are tough on corruption and they serve the people whom they are honoured to lead. Their example shames the corrupt, self-serving dictators and autocrats who, alas, still populate the developing world. We can work well with those improving Governments and, by their example, show the rest what can be done. At the moment, the friends of development operate in a benign climate. There is political consensus on the importance of development, and all parties are committed to the unified British approach to development.

There is mass public support for the development agenda, as Gleneagles showed last year. Germany has agreed to back that agenda and take it forward when it assumes the G8 presidency next year. However, we must not take public support for granted. Our aid budget is set to rise to 0.7 per cent. of national income by 2013. Indeed, that is the only spending commitment that the Conservative party has announced so far. To put that percentage into context, based on current economic predictions, the equivalent amount in cash will be well over double what it is today. Taxpayers rightly demand clear and transparent spending. As the funding rises so, too, will their expectation that output should match input. Our aim is to achieve the millennium development goals but, on current trends, the 2015 target will not be met. Ironically, Asia will probably achieve its MDGs, but Africa will not do so. In five years’ time, when the period covered by the White Paper comes to an end, people will look at the MDGs and realise that they will not be achieved, despite a rising aid budget. They will be right to ask tough questions, so we cannot afford to leave any doubt in the public’s mind about whether the money has been well spent. We must be able to demonstrate the concrete, tangible results of their investment. If we do not achieve those results, we will lose the determination of purpose and public confidence that have fuelled the enthusiasm and commitment to development.

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I warmly welcome the call in the White Paper to focus our aid on the poorest people and countries, as well as its resolute poverty focus. We have rightly moved on from the time when aid was tied to commercial interests, and the White Paper correctly notes that aid is more effective when given to countries with good governance. Even in those countries, however, not all aid projects are effective. Aid selectivity is not enough—we need stronger aid evaluation, too. We need rigorously to evaluate aid projects, giving more money to those that work, and refraining from supporting those that do not, to achieve the greatest possible reduction in poverty and suffering with our finite aid budget.

Aid projects are not always well evaluated. A recent internal report entitled, “How effective is DFID?”, showed that the Department often has little awareness of whether its aid has been spent on effective projects or whether it has obtained good value for money. I was disappointed by the lack of new proposals on improving aid effectiveness in the White Paper. DFID must take the lead by guaranteeing the independent evaluation of project effectiveness. There should be greater use of impact assessments to discover exactly how our aid is helping people, which is why I have proposed an independent aid watchdog to scrutinise British aid.

It is, I acknowledge, sometimes difficult to measure the effectiveness of aid. The Statistics Commission recently highlighted the problems with using the MDGs to measure DFID’s performance. A poor country could be making progress towards the MDGs despite ineffective aid programmes, or the positive effects of an effective aid programme could be masked by negative outside factors. The White Paper would have been a good opportunity to grapple with some of those difficult issues and to suggest improvements in the way in which aid effectiveness could be consistently and rigorously assessed and compared.

The White Paper’s focus on governance is, of course, enormously important. Without good domestic institutions, outside aid cannot lead to victory in the battle against poverty. I note with interest the White Paper’s pledge for DFID to double its spending on science and technology. New technologies—in particular, vaccines and medicines—have the potential to do immense good. However, we should not forget that many technologies already exist that allow us to reduce suffering cheaply: $5 malaria bed nets, DOTS treatment for tuberculosis, vaccinations that protect an entire family from disease for a few pounds, and oral rehydration therapy that can save a child’s life for 20p. The challenge is to roll out those technologies, as well as to invent more of them. We must ensure that new technologies are appropriate to the context in which they will be used. That is why I am particularly interested in progress on microbicides, which could empower women in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

I welcome the discussion of migration and remittances in the White Paper. Sending money back to developing countries is often a costly business. I look forward to hearing what specific ideas the Secretary of State has to help lower the cost of remittancing. Economic growth is clearly central to development. One has only to look at India and China to see that. The White Paper rightly identifies trade as a crucial
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driver of wealth creation and development. Last week, I met the deputy US trade representative, Ambassador John Veroneau. He is not a man with whom one would wish to play poker. However, I got the impression that he is willing, in principle, to go further to make the Doha round work. Indeed, President Bush has given such instructions. Commissioner Mandelson has also indicated that he is willing to go further. As soon as the mid-term elections are out of the way, I urge the Government to press hard for real movement in the Doha talks.

The White Paper also indicates support for an international arms trade treaty. It focuses on the need for the treaty to include all the world’s major arms exporters, rather than to be overly rigorous in what it enforces. There is a tension between a universal and relatively weak treaty, and a stronger treaty ratified by a small number of Governments. The priority must be to ensure that countries such as China sign up to it and then live up to their obligations. Perhaps in his summary the Minister could say a little more about how and when the treaty might get some flesh on its bones.

I am pleased that the White Paper covers the crucial issue of how climate change and environmental degradation interact with international development policy, as the Secretary of State said. As I saw in Bangladesh recently, climate change will hit the poor hardest and fastest. It has arguably had an effect on the crisis in Darfur and it will lead to more natural disasters. The idea of an independent world humanitarian report to monitor how well the world responds to humanitarian crises is a good one.

I warmly welcome the decision to focus more on disaster preparation and mitigation, rather than simply responding to disasters once they have happened. One of the major problems with current aid efforts is that we have not worked out a good way of making the transition from immediate humanitarian relief after a catastrophe to long-term reconstruction. Sadly, there are a number of examples of that around the world. I hope that we will hear more from the Secretary of State on that and I hope that he will press for better co-ordination, auditing and accountability in relation to the aid funds that are used in response to disasters.

Much of the White Paper focuses on the issues that I have been discussing—governance and aid—but there are some other important areas that the Government may have overlooked. For example, addressing gender inequality should play a major role in international development efforts. Women often bear the greatest costs of poverty. Too many girls do not go to school. Women bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to Amartya Sen, the most effective aid projects are those that improve access to water, so that women spend less time walking miles to fetch it, and those that improve female education.

The White Paper also largely neglects the growing role of China and India in international development. The geopolitical landscape is changing, and the growing prosperity of India and China pose new challenges for DFID. Last week, in Beijing, I struggled to resolve the conundrum that Britain is spending £150 million over the next few years in a country that had a trade surplus last month of $15 billion. However, even as those countries approach middle-income status, we
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must not forget that hundreds of millions of people in western China and states such as Bihar in India are very poor. Indeed, there are more poor people in India than there are in the whole of Africa. In reality, India and China lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty each month because their economic policies embrace growth and they benefit from participation in the international trading system.

I was slightly concerned by the inconsistent analysis in the White Paper of the role of business. Private businesses are the ultimate engines of growth here and in the developing world. Multinational businesses create employment, drive up wages and working conditions, and help to spread technology. They contribute to not just growth, but social justice. However, the White Paper confines the role of business to one chapter, and when it refers to international partners, business does not seem to be one of them. The private sector should not be defined in such a limited way. There is a role for business in building water infrastructure and providing health care, education and other basic services. DFID should be open-minded about working with businesses to achieve more. I welcome the White Paper’s robust stance on tackling corruption by business, but the Secretary of State and the Department of Trade and Industry will know how treacherous an area this is: one man’s bribe is another man’s free lunch. As well as clamping down on the private sector when it does wrong, we must celebrate and encourage its achievements when it is a force for good, which it is for the vast majority of the time.

The White Paper contains some 170 action points. They cover a broad and rightly ambitious agenda and I am pleased to say that I agree with at least 150 of them. Many of them require DFID staff to engage with international stakeholders, and I hope that the Department has the capacity to deliver on them.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I had hoped to interrupt my hon. Friend before he moved off the subject of business. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Grameen banking and welcoming the Nobel peace prize that was recently given to its founder? Will he also acknowledge that there is a real role for the growth of private funds, which I believe are developing quite substantial amounts towards Grameen banking? There might be a solution there to some of the kinds of poverty about which the White Paper talks.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his timely intervention. In July, I had the great pleasure of spending two or three days in Bangladesh with Professor Yunus, the man who founded the Grameen bank. I join my hon. Friend in saluting the excellent news that came through last week. I hesitate to draw his attention to the article that I wrote in The Times when I got back from my trip, but he might find it of some minor interest.

I look forward to generous British support for the 15th round of the International Development Association replenishment at the World Bank next year. Despite much investigation in Washington last
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week, I remain somewhat confused about the Secretary of State’s decision to withhold £50 million from the World Bank. I am assured that the bank’s use of conditionality with regard to privatisation and trade liberalisation affects hardly any of its newer lending, and DFID itself is an admirable champion of freer trade. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State knows what he was doing. While it was certainly not always the case, the World Bank’s programmes are hugely respected around the world today, and Britain’s role is greatly respected in the bank, too. We should give the bank our firm support at this time.

Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree with what Tearfund says in its briefing paper about economic partnership agreements? It is absolutely essential that EPAs are completely reformed. The Government have clearly approached the subject with a little bit too light a touch. We must tackle the EPAs and ensure that we get proper economic liberalisation.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend’s point is the subject of much debate. If he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope he will be able to develop his argument about EPAs.

I am glad that the White Paper recognises that UN reform is crucial. The Secretary of State made that very point in his speech. All of us who engage with the UN on the ground know that the organisation is full of the most talented and dedicated people, but that they are all too often let down by organisational weakness. The UN has been guilty of mission creep into areas beyond its core competency. I hope that the Government will support measures to slim down the number of United Nations agencies, and we must improve the UN’s performance in co-ordinating the world’s response to humanitarian disasters.

Finally, I shall deal with the importance of conflict resolution and pay a warm tribute to the Select Committee report that was published yesterday. This is probably the most crucial area of all in international development, and although I shall not detain the House long on it, I want to say a word in the context of Darfur. Conflict resolution is so important because no matter how much aid and trade people receive, if they have been forced out of their village and are living in a camp, they will remain poor, destitute and frightened.

When the UN agreed last year, amid much mutual congratulation and back-slapping, to embrace a responsibility to protect, it offered hope to those waiting for help in Darfur’s camps, but the international will to give meaning to that responsibility to protect remains woefully inadequate. The problem is compounded by the fact that people who have suffered in Darfur and seen the failure of international action in that area, and who note that in Lebanon it took the UN only 30 days to intervene effectively, must come to the conclusion that the world counts the life of an African as of less value and less importance than the life of others. That is a challenge to us all.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Is not one of the differences between Lebanon and Darfur that in Lebanon the international community had the
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co-operation of the Government of Lebanon, whereas in Darfur, regrettably, we do not have the co-operation of the Government of Sudan?

Mr. Mitchell: I do not propose to enter into a debate on the comparison between Lebanon and Darfur, but the position facing the international community was in many ways more complex in Lebanon than in Darfur. The point I make to the hon. Gentleman, who I know thinks carefully about these matters, is that the sort of African that I am describing, who watches intelligently what is going on around the world, is very likely to draw the extremely uncomfortable comparison that I have just put before the House. I reiterate that that is the challenge to all of us as we seek to reform the international architecture in the way that the Secretary of State and I have set out.

The White Paper that we are considering has the potential to stimulate an enormous amount of good. The public determination that Britain and the rest of the developed world should make a huge commitment to lifting the poorest people in our world out of poverty is the task that the Government and all of us as politicians are charged with implementing. As I discuss the White Paper with those involved in the world of international development—with the members of NGOs, DFID personnel and groups of dedicated professionals engaged in development work far and wide—I am constantly struck by their commitment, enthusiasm and determination that this generation will make the greatest possible contribution to ending the scourge of international poverty which blights the life chances of so many in Africa and the poor world. I hope that the White Paper will play a modest part in steering our activities in the right direction.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. At the risk of stating the obvious, there is not much time left for the debate. Hon. Members will do themselves a favour if they make relatively short speeches, so that I can get as wide a variety of contributions as possible.

4.53 pm

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I declare an interest as a member of the Select Committee on International Development. I welcome the comments of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). The report published yesterday on conflict and development is crucial and is one of the best reports I have been privileged to participate in drawing up in almost 20 years in the House. It deserves a full debate on the Floor of the House and should be the subject of our next debate on international development. I shall leave it to our Chair to say more about that.

The world is eight times richer than it was 50 years ago, yet the inequalities between the rich and the poor are widening. There seems to be enduring, endemic poverty in the world. The Economist, in its future trends, suggested that we should focus on four themes in the next 50 years—in the first half of the century. The first of those themes was the development of economic globalisation, including India and China, but still excluding African countries. The second theme was
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the pace of climate change, to which Members have referred. The third theme was the impact of migration, which will massively increase and has been underestimated. The fourth theme was the persistence of faith and religion.

I welcome the White Paper, which is subtitled “making governance work for the poor”. I found it to be a brilliant summary of where we have got to on the subject both here in Britain and internationally. I felt that it was a good workbook or handbook; it tells some of the good stories of what has been achieved, as well as what we are up against. I recommend it, and I hope that there is a reprint—and, if there is, that it is distributed to schools and elsewhere—because it is a good volume.

In my remarks, I do not want to concentrate on governance and corruption. There is a view that 2005 was the year of international development. It was certainly the year of increased money and commitment to the aid budget—a doubling of it, in our case. I should mention that I welcome the commitment from the Conservative party; the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has done very well to get his one commitment—and, I say with some edge, we shall watch that space. In 2005, there was some good work on aid and on debt—although there is much to do on trade, as other Members have mentioned, and I wonder whether there is an agenda for that. But at least it was a good year. However, although 2005 was a good year, on page 29 of the report there is a piece of graffito that says, “2006 corrupt. We need change.”

In facing up to corruption, there is a danger that aid is not used well. An agenda that focuses solely on corruption might take away the dynamic that has focused all our attentions on tackling poverty, so I do not want to focus on corruption.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I was in Ethiopia last week as part of an attempt to tackle corruption and to address good governance. Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people on the ground recognise that corruption and good governance are crucial to their lifting themselves out of poverty? Does he agree that although, as he says, we should not concentrate solely on that, it is fundamental to everything that flows from it?

John Battle: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I hope that others will underline what he says, because I agree that it is crucial; I will listen to other contributions on that, and I am convinced of the point. But other points are missing from the report, and I want to focus on them.

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