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Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 March 2007

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Reconstruction

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 923, and the Government response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 172.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Liz Blackman.]

2.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this report. By definition, conflict is a difficult and huge subject that has many interweaving strands. Although I hope that our report was constructive and useful, it does not and could not cover every aspect of how to prevent conflict and how to rebuild after it.

We felt it important to carry out such a report, because we were only too aware of the devastating effect of conflict and of how it is incompatible with aid and development that one conflict can wipe out the effect of the world’s entire aid budget for a year. The people who are most affected by any conflict are the most vulnerable, especially women and children, who suffer the greatest poverty and hardship. Countries affected by conflict have the lowest prospect of achieving the millennium development goals, because the capacity to deliver services is simply destroyed.

The other problem is that conflict affects neighbouring states. It does so either by spreading the conflict into them or because people in neighbouring states use it as an opportunity to take advantage of a vulnerable, failed or conflict-prone state. Given those facts, we took the view that it is essential that the Development for International Development has a strategy for dealing with conflict states. The strategy for Africa and for poverty reduction will simply not be achieved unless, in co-operation with other donors and agencies, we can deal with conflicts as they arise. That is particularly borne out by evidence that about half the states that have had conflict fall back into it within a few years of a peace being settled. I suspect that we shall hear examples of those during the debate.

No one on the Committee believes that there are simple, off-the-shelf solutions, and we accept that a number of different factors come into play. I welcome the Department’s publication last week of “Preventing Violent Conflict”, which gives practical examples of where the Department has promoted initiatives that it hopes will reduce conflict—in some cases, the Department can provide evidence that such initiatives have made a contribution to doing so. The Committee also appreciated the work of the cross-departmental conflict prevention pools and the post-conflict reconstruction unit. As our report said, these would be
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much more helpful if the Department of Trade and Industry were involved, and I intend to return to that point later.

The Committee held some interesting sittings at the outset about the causes of conflict. They were somewhat theoretical and academic discussions about the role of greed and grievance, and the regional dimensions to conflict that I have mentioned. In a sense, we were trying to establish whether general principles can be developed to deal with conflicts. We were resistant to the idea, which some academics advance, of a nice, simple analysis that defines things. By definition, the seeds and courses of every conflict are different, although there are some common factors.

We could not possibly undertake a definitive review of all of the recent conflicts in the world, so we did not attempt to do so. For example, we did not examine the conflict in Sri Lanka, which appears to have the capacity to continue indefinitely. It would be unhelpful if I were to comment on what the answers should be in that country. I simply put it on the record that we recognise that there are conflict situations that we did not examine and thus cannot comment upon usefully.

Given the importance of Africa to the Government’s development strategy and the degree of conflict that there has been in that continent, the Committee visited three specific African conflict zones—northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although I am not sure whether that is an appropriate name for it. The Committee split into two for the first two visits. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) led the group to Sierra Leone, while I went to Uganda and the DRC. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will catch your eye later, Mr. Illsley, because he will have more to say about what he found and learned from the Committee’s visit to Sierra Leone. I am sure that he will observe that while peace has been re-established, the factors that could lead to the re-emergence of conflict are still in place, but I shall leave him to elaborate on that.

In northern Uganda, we saw at first hand the consequences of 20 years of the sinister and bloody activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has terrorised people by attacking villages, abducting children and brutalising them as soldiers, and raping and enslaving girls as well as turning many of them into soldiers. Although we would not blame the Government of Uganda for causing that conflict, we found underlying concern that there is a clear division between the Government supporters and the Acholi people, from whom President Museveni’s predecessor, Milton Obote, drew his support—those people tend to vote for the opposition. There is a mutual suspicion between the Government and the Acholi people in the north in respect of who is to blame and what could, and could not, be done about the situation. There were situations where the Government said that people were free to return to the land, but the people said, “Yes, but we have been told that we will be shot should we try to do so. We are not sure whether Government forces are there to protect or contain us.”

People have fled in fear from their land into grossly overcrowded camps, whose facilities are poor. For too long, the Ugandan Government appeared content to allow the situation to rest, sometimes claiming that the insurgency was almost crushed and at other times
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saying that they were going to promote peace negotiations. Last year, there were the beginnings of what looked like a serious attempt at peace negotiations, but they seem to have run into the sand. One hears slightly disturbing reports that the LRA are recruiting again in the bush, and I would be grateful if the Secretary of State were to share any up-to-date information on that front.

I made a second visit, courtesy of Oxfam, six months after the first trip towards the end of last year, when I saw that something encouraging had taken place in the interval. The area of land under cultivation reaching out from the camps had substantially extended from being 1 to 1.5 km outside the camps to being 8 to 9 km distant. There were also outreach camps, which had a huge impact on the amount of land under cultivation and helped to diversify the access to food supplies and the restocking of livestock.

The fact remains that there is still no peace settlement and no signs of one. There were outbreaks of cholera in the camps. Without a peace agreement, the people were too terrified to return to the land. Even if they were to do so, they would clearly need a substantial amount of aid support to restock and to re-establish their livelihood within such areas.

The Committee made specific reference to its concern that last year the international community gave $200 million in aid collectively to that one region of Uganda, yet in stable camps under the watch of Ugandan Government forces, we found little or no education, poor health care provision—where there was such provision, it was provided not by the Ugandan Government, but by international agencies—and virtually no policing. If there was criminal activity in the camps, it was up to the victims to transport the accused to court, which is ridiculous because an impoverished refugee without transport in a camp cannot and would not expect to do that.

It seemed that the Ugandan Government were failing in their obligations to provide services to their own people and had left it to the international community to pick up the pieces. I venture to say that it suited the Ugandan Government not to have that responsibility. It may not be a direct consequence, but there is concern—the Secretary of State will acknowledge that this is the aid dilemma—that the process of providing aid lets the Ugandan Government off the hook. If they had to meet all the costs, they would have much greater motivation to solve the problem. It is a chicken-and-egg situation, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would give an update on that.

That situation brings home something that we mention in the report. I hope that it is history now, but the international community, including our Government agencies, have invested too often in people rather than institutions. People as leaders are unpredictable and unreliable, and we may have invested too much in President Museveni and not enough in ensuring that Government institutions function properly in Uganda. I hope that we will put more emphasis on the institutions and the mechanisms.

Uganda is a conflict state, but settling the problem of the Lord’s Resistance Army and having a peaceful Democratic Republic of the Congo at its border would
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put Uganda back on the road to growth and development in a much more inclusive and unifying way, and it would make Uganda less aid-dependent in the long term. The questions that hang in the air are whether there is the remotest chance of that happening and what our Department can do to help to bring it about.

Our visit to the DRC was different. The Secretary of State tells me that there are problems there as we speak, and perhaps he will give us more information about that. When we visited the DRC, we were overawed by the scale of the devastation that had been wrought by that long conflict, but there was hope that the steps that the United Nations and others were taking to pave the way for elections and perhaps the rebuilding of effective government could move the country on from being unquestionably a failed state. If today’s reports of fighting in Kinshasa are accurate, and if that fighting leads to further breakdown, it would be a worrying setback, but setbacks do not always destroy the momentum for peace, and we must hope that the latter applies.

We were in the DRC during the run-up to the elections, and I was given the honour, with the Foreign Minister of the DRC, of turning the first turf for the Department for International Development’s new offices. Having done that, it was interesting that the questions from journalists attending the event were about which local company had got the contract to build the DFID offices or to supply the fixtures and fittings. No one asked about the benefit to the citizens of the DRC of DFID’s increasing activity in that country. Perhaps that shows how far we must travel for people to understand the engagement in more than the most basic and material terms of immediate cash in their hands.

We were told about the problem of how a local leading politician corrupted DFID’s painstaking work to build up capacity for road building based on locally recruited Congolese specialist surveyors, engineers and so on. The project had to be put on hold, because old-fashioned leadership styles cut across the development agenda. Will the Secretary of State indicate whether that problem has been or is in the process of being resolved so that the infrastructure developments that should have flowed from that do so? I commend what DFID was trying to do to build up that capacity, but it shows how quickly it can be undermined when the tradition is corruption and self-serving, rather than engagement to deliver development results.

The Secretary of State acknowledged that one of our specific successes during the inquiry was the growing engagement of the Department in non-English-speaking countries—Francophone and Portuguese-speaking countries. That brought home to us the need for the Department’s senior personnel in the country to have the same quality of language training that is available to Foreign Office personnel, because those people negotiate with Ministers and their Departments on development, budget support and so on. The Secretary of State acknowledged that that was necessary, and I am grateful to him for having done so.

As we travelled from Kinshasa to eastern Congo, we were as impressed as anyone by the beautiful setting of Lake Kivu, and we had not expected to find something rather like Switzerland in the heart of Africa. Africa is a vast continent with a lot of wonderful scenery, but
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more surprising was the bustle, trade and business activity on the streets of Bukavu, because we had not expected that from what we had been told was a failed state. That was a clear indication of the country’s resource richness and the way people were enterprisingly privateering and developing their contacts and business. The problem is that those very resources provided the money to sustain the warring factions and to prolong the conflict. It could be argued that Congo did not have a classic civil war; it had privateering on a grand scale by lots of individuals with their private armies, which minerals and other resources helped to fund.

We saw the direct consequences of the appalling suffering that ordinary Congolese people experience from disease, hunger and in particular the systematic and brutal rape of women as an instrument of conflict. We visited the local prison, where conditions were poor and justice appeared to be rough. We went to the Panzi hospital where we were moved and impressed by the wonderful work to support victims of sexual violence. They were victims twice. They were victims because they were brutalised, attacked and sometimes physically destroyed; then they were rejected by their communities for having been raped, and were outcasts. In the hospital they found support—not just medical support but rehabilitation and re-engagement, which was extremely important and useful.

What worried us at the time was that the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office was considering withdrawing support from the hospital on the grounds that the conflict had supposedly ended. I am glad that DFID did not take that view, and tried to argue differently. Will the Secretary of State give an update on what is happening in that context? We would be appalled if such activity did not continue for a considerable time. Although the conflict was officially over, raped women were still coming into the hospital at the rate of 10 or 15 a week. Clearly, the conflict was not over for them.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): On that point, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Security Council resolution 1325 gives Governments the opportunity to see all those aspects—particularly the prime victims, who are women and children—through the prism of a women’s agenda? When trying to recover from conflict and build the peace, it is critical that women become centrally involved—for their health and psychological well-being, in particular.

Malcolm Bruce: I completely agree. The hon. Lady will acknowledge that during my time on the Committee, and from the number of visits that I have made, I have become more and more aware of the key role that women must play not only in conflict resolution but in aid and development. I am absolutely convinced that giving women power will unlock many problems in Africa, and I just wish that more men in Africa would begin to understand that it is to their advantage to do so. I shall not discuss some of the mischief that we heard about when we were in Ethiopia—but it was women’s revenge.

There is one point of difference between the Committee and not necessarily the Secretary of State’s Department but the Government. We received evidence—we also
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saw evidence when we were in the DRC—from Global Witness, ActionAid, Rights and Accountability in Development, a non-governmental organisation, and Thomas Eggenburg of Krall Métal Congo. They clarified for us not only the regional dimensions of the war in the DRC but the extent to which it was sustained—either knowingly or without adequate checks—by companies transacting in minerals that had been procured illegally and often by force. The revenue enables rival groups to supply, pay and equip their forces, and in turn, they pray on the local population for further support. To be honest, I am not satisfied with that area of the Government’s response, which was, otherwise, a good and positive recognition of and update on what they are doing.

The Committee was told in the Government’s response that a number of companies are alleged to support the trade in illegally acquired resources, including some British companies. We discovered that the UN panel that submitted the names and identified the allegations processed them as “resolved”. One would assume that a word such as “resolved” implied that, somehow, the allegations had been dismissed; however, the UN panel—the people who published the names—said that “resolved” should be interpreted as meaning not that it invalidated the panel’s findings but that an agreement had been made that such activities would stop. The implication was that the UN expected responsible Governments—in the case of British companies, the British Government—to investigate the allegations further and to take appropriate action. The Government’s response to our report shows inadequacies. The UK authorities appear to have done little or nothing.

Mr. Ketan Kotecha of Afrimex, one company against which the allegations were made, said that it had not had any contact with the DTI before and had not had any contact since, which is frankly astonishing. He also told us that he was unaware of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines, which for a small company, may be unsurprising. However, once the allegations were made, one would have expected the DTI to be engaged with the company, but it has not been.

We appreciate Mr. Kotecha’s giving oral and written evidence to the Committee—somewhat naively, because he then tried to redress the balance. However, nobody from Alfred H. Knight International was prepared to do so. It is a reputable British company, against which serious allegations were made, and they were neither investigated nor addressed. The Committee does not have the capacity, inclination or responsibility to investigate those complaints, but we expect that the Government should have.

Given what I have said about the use of the word “resolved”, when the Government say in their reply that the national contact point took “resolved” to be a reason for no further action, when they pray in aid that no NGO came forward with further information, and when they say that the information relating to Alfred H. Knight International involved German companies and was therefore passed to the German Government, it seems to be a washing of hands, an unwillingness to engage and a “not wanting to know”. It is one reason why the DTI should be involved in cross-departmental groupings on conflict resolution.

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The DTI needs to understand much more the potential damage to aid and development that British companies can do—consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or because they do not take enough time or enough care. The Committee proposes to take evidence from the DTI on the issue, and I hope that, together, we can get something useful going. The national contact point has done some useful work, but it would be able to do more if the DTI were brought in. Notwithstanding those comments, which were about one point that emerged from the Committee’s investigation, overall we welcome the Department’s focus on conflict issues. It is finding ways to use aid to resolve conflicts and prevent recurrence.

As the second largest donor in the DRC, the Government clearly envisage an opportunity to focus specifically on a conflict zone and find ways of using substantial amounts of aid to help for the future. I had written on my notes that there are risks in that strategy, and clearly, today’s news is an example of one such risk. However, I still argue that they are risks worth taking, because if one can sow seeds of good governance, and lay the foundations of a functioning state, ultimately a whole region will benefit.

The DRC is rich in resources, and the tragedy is that if it were well governed, it could provide its people with peace, security and all the opportunities that they deserve. The people are entitled to look to the international community for help with the reconstruction of infrastructure, skills and capacity, but they must provide leadership. We must reach a point at which grievances are addressed and government is not an instrument for personal corruption and the franchising of public resources.

On Tuesday, the Committee met Sundeep Waslekar of the Strategic Foresight Group, whom we have met on several occasions and is based in Mumbai. He produced research that shows—unsurprisingly—that the rise of extremism and terrorism is sustained in areas where there is a deficit in development, democracy and dignity. It offers a transition in which aid, as a means of conflict resolution, provides support for policies that offset those deficits, restore dignity and democracy and provide the space for real and sustained development.

I wish DFID well. Conflict resolution is a big task, and every conflict is different, but I hope that the Government, in their engagement, will be able to demonstrate that they have found helpful policies. I hope also that at the end of the debate, the Secretary of State will be able to answer some of the specific questions that I have put to him.

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