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My Department has committed more than £200 million over the past five years to agricultural research. Our support for research to date has helped to identify drought-tolerant maize, which will help African farmers to increase their harvest by up to 50 per cent. We have helped to develop new rice varieties for Africa, which, in Nigeria, for example, have helped to reduce imports of rice by more than 800,000 tonnes in one year alone. In recent weeks, I have met Kofi Annan to discuss how we can best support his new alliance for a green revolution in Africa to produce further breakthroughs. My Department also provides support for the agricultural needs of rural communities through other programmes such as social protection, land reform and the provision of rural roads. In Malawi, our support for the Government’s fertiliser and seed subsidy programme has contributed to a harvest surplus of
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1 million tonnes. In Uganda, we have provided direct budget support to the Government, supporting reforms that have reduced rural poverty in the past 15 years from nearly two thirds of the population to just over one third.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware of any work to produce cotton seeds that need less water? Cotton is a tremendously thirsty plant. The Secretary of State mentioned a number of other crops, so can he tell us more about cotton?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, as I cannot give a detailed exposition on cotton seeds. If my ministerial colleague cannot respond in the winding-up speech, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that he is provided with the information. In a recent discussion on the lead issue of agriculture, officials were keen to stress that we are not only providing £200 million of support for agricultural research, but are highly influential on international bodies that determine what agricultural research should be undertaken. That is consistent with the approach that we want, where we contribute to multilateral funding while also bringing influence to bear. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular concerns about new varieties of cotton seeds, I will ensure that they are passed on directly to officials.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am grateful for what the Secretary of State has said about the Department’s commitment to agriculture, but does he acknowledge that we have a capacity in agricultural research because of our traditional links with Commonwealth countries, which could be tapped more effectively? When the Select Committee was in Afghanistan two weeks ago, we met farmers who had come out of poppy and were growing melons, maize and wheat, but who received no advice when they developed problems with yields or pests. There was no adequate extension service. Does the Secretary of State not think that DFID could help in training in extension service in a country such as Afghanistan?

Mr. Alexander: The right hon. Gentleman brings his considerable expertise to bear on this question. I have reflected on the issue in recent months in the Department. In a previous era, the United Kingdom gave a great deal of direct support for agriculture through the provision of experts to developing countries. Since we have moved to a country ownership model of development, that has changed. DFID’s work on agriculture and infrastructure has been given a re-emphasis and a redirection.

It is right to acknowledge the continuing priority given to basic services, whether in health, education or water and sanitation. Given the resource base that the Department has now secured, however, I am convinced that an opportunity exists for real thought leadership. That applies equally to growth, where we can provide growth diagnostics and assistance to countries to develop their own growth path, and to agriculture, given the expertise of the research base in the United Kingdom.

In recent months, in relation to agriculture, I have set a challenge to my officials not to seek to replicate in every country a provision that is now deemed outdated,
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given the country leadership approach. Instead, they should see what better links can be made between the quality of expertise that the United Kingdom still retains, the effective matrix of international research now undertaken in agriculture and the work continually undertaken by developing country Governments, given the overwhelming significance of agriculture in many of their economies. Therefore, the point is well taken.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The Secretary of State is right to identify economic growth as the major driver in ending poverty, as it has delivered many people out of poverty. Is he not therefore concerned about the early introduction of the economic partnership agreements to the six African, Caribbean and Pacific regions, possibly against their best interests? Why the rush? Why the December deadline? Should not we wait to ensure that what we do is in the best interests of those countries, so that we do not destroy the economic growth that could bring more people out of poverty in Africa?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman anticipates a point that I was going to make, but I will deal briefly with his substantive point. This week, I have had a long and detailed telephone conversation with Peter Mandelson, the Trade Commissioner, on the issue. Next week, I will travel to Brussels for the General Affairs and External Relations Council, at which economic partnership agreements will be one of the key issues. Also this week, with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, in his joint role as Minister with responsibility for trade, I had a discussion with non-governmental organisations from the Trade Justice Movement and related organisations. Economic partnership agreements are therefore very much at the forefront of our minds.

The hon. Gentleman posed a question to me about the urgency. Straightforwardly, the urgency is not set down by the European Commission per se, but the Cotonou agreement has been deemed World Trade Organisation-incompatible, and the deadline of 31 December is of long standing. Simply rolling forward the Cotonou provisions would be WTO-incompatible, and the deadline has been clear.

That being said, United Kingdom NGOs have expressed concerns to me that, notwithstanding the urgency of finding a way forward with each of the ACP countries, the British Government should not resile from our policy commitments of March 2005, when, in a previous incarnation as Minister with responsibility for trade, I was responsible for framing our policies on economic partnership agreements. This week, I have talked those issues through with the NGOs and the Trade Commissioner. I made it clear to him that we continue to want to see the type of economic partnership agreements for which we have long argued—those that can reasonably be understood as development-friendly and assisting developing countries.

It is important, however, to uphold the case, for which the evidence is now overwhelming, that trade, given the right support and context, is a hugely powerful driver of economic growth and poverty reduction. It is impossible to cite a country that has lifted itself out of
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poverty in the past 40 years without external trade. While I have great sympathy with those who campaign, as I have done, for a fairer set of trade rules, I have little sympathy for some in the anti-globalisation movement who suggest that the quickest way out of poverty is somehow not to see a greater degree of liberalisation and a reformulation of the world trade rules. The challenge is to make sure that we are in the room arguing not simply for free trade but for fair trade. Economic partnership agreements can contribute to that development-friendly goal that we share, and that is why I will make that case in Brussels early next week.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State laying emphasis on the importance of a private sector to growth. I hope that he shares the belief that it is important to develop in Africa an indigenous small business sector that lies between foreign investment by multinationals and micro-credit at the lower level. That is particularly important in relation to agriculture, because a lack of credit is one of the things that stops small farmers becoming bigger farmers. Will he talk with the African Development Bank, possibly with CDC, and possibly with, for example, the German bank ProCredit, to see whether more can be done to provide small and medium-sized African farmers with the credit that they need to increase production?

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend. The approach in relation to the African Development Bank, the principal regional development bank dealing with that continent’s challenges, is consistent with the approach that I want DFID to take more broadly with the other multilateral institutions within the international system. Given that we have resources to deploy following the generous comprehensive spending review settlement that we have achieved, we should try to provide generous finance. In the coming weeks there will be a decision on the next round of funding for the African Development Bank, and we are giving serious consideration to that. However, as well as providing extra resources, we should aim to exert more influence over the policy choices made by institutions such as the development bank.

My hon. Friend has made a good point about the need for credit to enable small businesses to develop in Africa, but I do not think we should limit our ambitions to the livelihoods of small farmers and traders, vital though that is. We should reflect on the business achievements of Mo Ibrahim, who has been much in the newspapers in recent months following the establishment of the Mo Ibrahim international prize. It is a powerful illustration of the transforming economic effect of Africa-based organisations such as Celtel. The use of mobile phones in Kenya is an example. Celtel has radically transformed not just the connectivity of the continent of Africa, but its opportunities for economic development. Interesting statistics are emerging about the effect on economic growth in the immediate community when Africans are given mobile phones.

Certainly we want to support the livelihoods of small traders and farmers, and certainly we want more provision of credit to allow businesses to be started. However, we should also support the work of multinational enterprises
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in Africa as well as the development of major international players out of Africa. In recent days I have met representatives of Business Action for Africa, a combination of multinationals working on the continent. Where they comply with the best standards and the international guidelines, many of which we have been central in devising, we strongly welcome their engagement as a means of providing the people of Africa with additional support, investment and opportunities.

In the last month alone I have met Pascal Lamy, Kamal Nath and Susan Schwab, the United States trade representative, and have engaged in conversations with the Kenyan and South African Trade Ministers. In each of those conversations, I made clear that the United Kingdom’s No. 1 trade policy is to deliver the promise of a development round in the Doha development talks. There is little be gained and much to be lost from further delay.

As I have said, we will participate in discussions on economic partnership agreements with the Commission next week through the General Affairs and External Relations Council. We will reiterate our concern to ensure that such agreements benefit African, Pacific and Caribbean countries. However, all the benefits of growth that we have discussed this afternoon, and the opportunity for trade to contribute to that growth, are imperilled unless we also recognise the threat posed to development by climate change, whose effects—feared by many in developed countries—are already being felt in the poorest regions of the world. Lake Chad is no longer a lake but a dust bowl, malaria is spreading to the highlands of Kenya owing to temperature rises, and declining rainfall in Darfur has turned millions of hectares of grazing land into desert.

Today’s report from the International Development Committee rightly raises concerns about the impact of climate change on development. My Department has committed £74 million for research and improving adaptation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It has also conducted climate risk assessments in countries as diverse as China, India and Kenya, and we are helping to build the capacity of developing country Governments to tackle climate change in the years to come.

Since 2004, the Department has been working in Bangladesh with the country’s Government on a number of climate change projects, including helping communities to prepare for disasters such as flooding which afflict the country all too often, particularly in coastal areas. The new environmental transformation fund, valued at £800 million, will provide further help for developing countries, enabling them to adapt, safeguard their environments and fund low-carbon paths towards growth and economic prosperity. We are also working across Government to press for global post-Kyoto agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Bali conference next month will be a vital next staging post on the journey.

Another issue raised in the IDC’s report is the central importance of helping women to achieve the millennium development goals. Only last month, at the World Bank annual meetings, I worked with my Dutch, German and Nordic counterparts to secure language in the communiqué to highlight the fact

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My Department set out its commitment in a gender equality action plan earlier this year, in last year’s White Paper, in the new public service agreement and in the 2006 White Paper.

We have underlined our commitment with action. Last month I announced that we would give an additional £100 million to the United Nations Population Fund to support its work on maternal health. The Department has long championed girls’ education. Our support for Afghanistan has helped to get 2 million girls in school, where under the Taliban there were none. My Department has been at the forefront of research into microbicides to give women control over their right to safe sex.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that the world is facing a development emergency that requires emergency action. The terrible figures that I cited earlier underline that assessment. At the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves in a world that remains too unsafe, too unequal and too unsustainable, but we also have the technology to tackle disease and the resources to fight hunger and illiteracy. We have seen progress on all those fronts in recent years. The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen from a third in 1990 to less than a fifth today. Aid increases and debt cancellation have helped to put 40 million more African children into school in just the past seven years. My Department has provided more than 40 million insecticide-treated bed nets since 2001, saving well over 600,000 lives.

It is not inevitable that 1 billion of our neighbours should live in extreme poverty. The era of globalisation has brought international communication, international travel and international trade. We must now strive together for international justice. We must extend opportunity to the world's poorest to be educated, to be healthy and to fulfil their potential. The challenge in doing so is great and cannot be met by Britain alone, but this Government will ensure that Britain continues to lead in the fight against poverty, as we have done for the past decade.

2.41 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Secretary of State has made a most interesting speech today and we welcome the debate. Indeed, we believe that there should be more debates in this House on international development, not least to reflect the huge interest among our constituents in these matters.

It is about a year since the House unanimously supported the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). It was my understanding, and that, I think, of most hon. Members, that we would have a debate each year specifically on the annual report to which the Bill referred. I know that the Secretary of State has said that the report is tagged to the debate, but, for the future, I hope that the Minister will confirm explicitly that we will have an annual debate on his Department’s annual report.

As virtually everyone in Britain accepts, the imperatives of international development are not Labour or Conservative but part of a British agenda to make sure that our generation’s determination to see
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definitive progress in the eradication of global poverty is fulfilled. I want at the outset to pay tribute to the work of DFID and the dedication of so many who work in this field in taking forward this British agenda and national commitment.

The comprehensive spending review last month rightly outlined a big increase in aid spending. The aid budget will increase from £5.4 billion to nearly £8 billion in 2010-11. As the Select Committee has pointed out, the impact of climate change will be earlier and more severe for poor countries. I saw this most starkly recently in Bangladesh, where a tiny rise in the water level will destroy the homes and livelihoods of millions of people. We see the effects of climate change even in the conflict in Darfur. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State, on another occasion, set out directly and in some detail the steps he is taking with his increased budget to assist with adaptation and mitigation strategies.

The scale of the increase in aid funding is both colossal and welcome, but it throws into even starker relief the key question that confronts all of us who are passionate about international development: how to spend this money as effectively as possible. As fiscal tightness bites in other areas, taxpayers will demand tangible evidence of results of this spending. That is why the Conservative party, making clear our absolute commitment to reaching the 0.7 per cent. target by 2013, has also made it clear that, in government, we will introduce a powerful and independent aid watchdog to ensure that poor people get the maximum benefit from every penny of British aid.

Hugh Bayley: When John Major was Prime Minister I introduced a Bill to ensure that the sole focus of the British aid programme would be poverty reduction. The Conservative party Whips at that time—I seem to remember that the hon. Gentleman was one of them—made sure that that did not became law, until we got a Labour Government. Will the hon. Gentleman give a commitment that if the Conservatives ever get back into office they will never move away from the poverty focus that is now a legal requirement for the aid programme—that they will not, for instance, return to the aid for trade provision?

Mr. Mitchell: I can give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking he seeks—and in doing so I am not making any great news, as the leader of my party has consistently and explicitly made that point.

British taxpayers need to know that their money is directly and incontrovertibly delivering the biggest reduction in poverty and suffering around the world. After months of Conservative pressure, the Government announced that they would establish an independent advisory committee on development impact for the Department for International Development, but on close inspection their proposal is a half-hearted and watered-down version of what we propose. It will merely issue polite reflections on how well DFID is evaluating itself. I sense that Sir Humphrey has been on the case. The Secretary of State might have secured some outstanding people to serve on his committee, but it is not the people but the remit with which we are concerned. I urge Ministers to re-examine
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the issue and establish a powerful and independent aid watchdog along the lines proposed in the Conservative party policy group report.

We have long argued that the Government are over-preoccupied with inputs and insufficiently concerned with outputs—and outcomes—and I was pleased to see that the International Development Committee, on page 3 of its most recent report, states:

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