Previous Section Index Home Page

15 Nov 2007 : Column 892

Nevertheless, I would still like the Secretary of State to come back to me on the point I just made. I understand the difficulties of the spend in the Congo, but that is a very small proportion of what was promised. If we divide £50 million by five, we are looking at £10 million a year. Perhaps the Secretary of State can explain whether we are talking about a capacity-building exercise, or what the issue is in relation to that seemingly slow start.

Education aid can directly intervene and raise the fortunes of people in the too many corners of the world that are blighted by poverty. It comes down to a question of cold, hard cash, and how much we give. We would have expected the first full comprehensive spending review from the new Prime Minister to honour, if not exceed, previous commitments on Britain’s overseas development assistance. It is therefore astounding that, according to my reading—I stand ready to be corrected—there seems to be a bit of backtracking on a previous spending commitment. In the 2004 spending review, DFID proudly announced that the United Kingdom would spend 0.47 per cent. more of gross national income on overseas development assistance in the 2007-08 period. However, in the most recent comprehensive spending review, this figure—on the website at least—appears quietly to have dropped to 0.37 per cent. I am happy to give the Secretary of State the links to the Treasury web pages that show that differential of 0.1 per cent.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: Does the hon. Lady accept that of course there is variation because of the specific deals on debt relief, for which she praised the Prime Minister? An example is Nigerian debt relief, which is factored into the figures. Does she further accept that with an average annual increase of 11 per cent. in real terms, our budget will rise to £7.9 billion in 2010-11, and, overall, the official development assistance to gross national income ratio will rise to 0.56 per cent. in 2010? That meets our share of our European commitment, meets our Gleneagles commitment, and puts us on a straight line to 0.7 per cent. of gross national income by 2013.

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the Secretary of State for that intervention, because I was about to say that if there was a 0.1 per cent. difference—perhaps he can still explain that to me, as the figure appears on the website—it would put things slightly off track. Perhaps we could examine that later.

Liberal Democrat Members would welcome a renewed sense of urgency in the Government on development. The Committee rightly pointed to the urgent work that is needed at the heart of the Department for International Development to drive efficiency, and I agree on that point, but we need to go one step further. Development can no longer be seen as a silo, and as a foreign affairs accessory that can be trotted out, and sometimes used as a fig-leaf to hide some of the Government’s more contradictory actions.

Mr. Alexander: That is outrageous.

Lynne Featherstone: The Secretary of State says that that is ridiculous, but I point once again to the selling of a military air traffic control system to Tanzania for about £28 million, while we were giving it aid worth the same amount. That is contradictory.

15 Nov 2007 : Column 893

Mr. Alexander: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lynne Featherstone: I am only two paragraphs from the end of my speech, but I will give way.

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s generosity. She seems to be suggesting, perhaps inadvertently, that the aid that is provided is tied. It is already a matter of record in this debate that British aid is now untied. It would be unfortunate if the House were left with the impression that she was suggesting that the significant uplift, which should be a cause of celebration on both sides of the House, will be used for anything other than poverty reduction. Will she take the opportunity to congratulate the Prime Minister on honouring the commitments made at Gleneagles, and on ensuring that the money that is committed and available to DFID and other Departments will be spent on poverty reduction?

Lynne Featherstone: I accept that. I was simply talking about joined-up thinking, because when issues such as the situation in Tanzania come to light, they seem to fly in the face of the evidence that the Secretary of State just put before me.

Consideration of what is good or bad for the world’s poorest must be at the heart of the Government’s foreign affairs policy if the Prime Minister is to make good his promise that Britain will meet its international obligations in full. We cannot go on saying one thing and doing another—I am talking specifically about corruption, in the terms that I used earlier. For the sake of the hundreds of millions of people for whom the millennium goals are still a faraway dream, I hope that the Prime Minister—the clunking fist—will, without further delay, turn yet further towards the development cause.

3.38 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I commend the Department for International Development for its work. As a Member of the Select Committee, and having seen its work first-hand on a number of occasions, I feel that we should be proud of the palpable dedication of many of its staff, particularly abroad. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for his International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006, because it helps us to focus our attention on our work on international development, and to hold our Government to account for what they do. That is a strong message to send, not only to people in the UK, but to our partners.

As a number of speakers have pointed out, and as the Select Committee stressed in its report, we need to concentrate more on the outcomes of our interventions, and not simply on the inputs. Since the Gleneagles summit in 2005, a false argument has sometimes been put forward on quantity of aid versus its quality. For the world’s poorest it is not an either/or debate: we need both. As the Prime Minister rightly pointed out in his speech to the United Nations on 31 July regarding the millennium development goal targets, the pace of change is

15 Nov 2007 : Column 894

I shall focus on a few areas where the pace and direction of our interventions, as a bilateral donor and as part of the wider international donor community, needs to change. The first area is gender. Time and again the Select Committee has returned to the topic in its various reports as a matter of concern, and I am happy to say that that view is shared by all my colleagues on the Committee, all of whom, by coincidence, are male. The reason for concern is blindingly obvious. Over 60 per cent. of those in absolute poverty are women, and many of them are young girls, but too often gender in development is treated as an added-on issue, rather than core to the way in which we tackle poverty. In aspects of development such as security or private sector development, the issue of gender is rarely mentioned and when it is, there is a tendency to tack it on at the end or just to say that it is very difficult.

We need to view gender in the context of basic human rights, rather than merely as an awkward problem. Girls in particular face a raw deal. They face double discrimination due to their gender and their age, and as a result in many societies they remain at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They face discrimination even before they are born. It is estimated that 100 million girls and women are missing because of the growing practice of female foeticide in some parts of the world. Girls are less likely to be educated, are more likely to suffer malnutrition, and are more at risk of gender-based violence and forced marriages at an early age.

We need to take a whole-of-life perspective if we are to get to grips with the scale of these problems. DFID has rightly focused attention on schooling and health care, but discrimination takes many forms. Lack of formal birth registration processes entrenches girls’ invisibility. Local and national traditions of lower minimum ages of marriage for girls and the use of child domestic workers effectively lock out their voice from the wider community. Lack of equal rights of inheritance and the creation of status offences discriminate against girls in legal systems and entrench their low economic status.

As an international donor we need to support work that challenges the status quo, creates a space for women’s voices to be heard and supports a strong, consistent call for their rights to be upheld. The need for this is never greater than in so-called fragile states. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) hopes to speak later on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the UK is the largest bilateral donor, but I, too, want to add my voice to the call for us to redouble our efforts in that region.

Members may have read reports in The Guardian this Monday about the increase in violence in the eastern DRC in recent months and the shocking statistics in relation to women who live there. Médecins sans Frontières was reported as stating that over 75 per cent. of the rape cases that it dealt with worldwide emanated from this region. We can justly claim that in the DRC rape and sexual slavery have reached epidemic proportions. It is the main form of attack. The many, many stories of absolute barbarity are truly shocking. It is perpetrated by all the various military groups in the region and also by civilians, as society has effectively broken down in many areas after years of
15 Nov 2007 : Column 895
the most intense conflict witnessed on this planet. It is believed that 4 million people have been killed since 1998. More than any other conflict, this has become a war against women, yet where is their voice in the current discussions about how we achieve peace?

I recently received correspondence from the platform of Congolese women in the UK, outlining their concerns at the current crisis and calling on the Government, together with members of the international community, to implement a national action plan based on Security Council resolution 1325, seek to restore security and effective demilitarisation, and start to address the causes of the conflict to ensure that a dangerous vacuum does not emerge again. Most importantly, we need to end the total impunity that exists for serious violations of national and international humanitarian law. I hope that the voices of Congolese women will be raised by our Government consistently, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would address these points in his closing remarks today.

The issue of security was also uppermost in our discussions when the Committee visited Afghanistan two weeks ago. Again, although there is a recognition that Security Council resolution 1325 is important, there appears to be little practical implementation. The Ministry of Women remains weak and largely ineffective.

It is of deep concern to me that in respect of the women’s prisons of Afghanistan, we found countless references to women being imprisoned because they did not want to marry the person chosen by their family, because they ran away from home or because they had sex outside marriage. That is an issue that we will address further in next year’s report, but I flag it up today as another example of the challenges that DFID needs to face—and face urgently.

As we work in fragile states, we often find a dearth of functioning civic society for ordinary working women. When we speak about the need to bolster governance, we also need to see how women’s voices can be heard not only at parliamentary level, but at grass-roots level. We need to bolster capacity and representation for women in local councils and allow the space for women’s organisations to grow and develop.

The second issue that I want to raise today is that of environment. It has been the subject of a great deal of debate, and the Government’s commitment to the World Bank fund and to the area of research is welcome. Some people airily declare that it is perfectly feasible to plant solar panels and wind turbines in health clinics and schools throughout remote rural communities as a means of combating the problem. However, we need research and policy development to see how to manufacture renewable technology in the regions themselves at sufficiently low cost to be affordable and to have the reliability and easy maintenance required to meet the environments in which they will be located. That is no easy task and, by definition, it means developing a whole range of skills that could be picked up by large numbers of people. I sometimes think that that is more of a challenge than the inventions themselves. We also need to help low-income countries to retain their low-carbon status, while at the same time being able to invest in areas that
15 Nov 2007 : Column 896
will achieve greater economic growth. The capacity for such long-term strategic planning is currently low, and I believe that the UK and other major donors can contribute significantly to this field.

There have been concerns that the funding required for adaptation over the next decade will swamp the existing Overseas Development Administration commitments, so we need to consider now the innovative solutions required to bring in this extra finance. In his report, Sir Nicholas Stern estimated that we need an extra 10 per cent. on top of existing estimates for aid requirement. The UK has been a world leader in innovative funding through the international finance facility and UNITAID.

May I take this opportunity to recommend that Ministers look at the report, launched last week, of the all-party group on debt, aid and trade, of which I am the Chair? The report looked into the possibility of having a sterling stamp duty on all sterling foreign exchange transactions. At a rate of only 0.005 per cent. it would generate £2.4 billion a year. I would like the Government to consider that report and undertake research into whether it could be used as part of a new funding mechanism. As I said, it is not just the quality of aid that is important; we also need more on quantity as well.

3.47 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I greatly welcome the opportunity to engage in this debate. In the short time available, I thought that I would comment on some countries in which we have been engaged recently as well as on the general thrust of today’s report. I should like to place on the record my thanks to the staff of the International Development Committee for ensuring that the report was available today; that required a degree of effort but has added to the value of our debate.

We have been concerned with a number of countries in the past year. The Secretary of State referred in his opening statement to Burma, and we recently published a report on that country. I want to thank the right hon. Gentleman first for his very prompt response in announcing the doubling of aid and secondly for his indication to the House today that that does not limit the aspirations. After all, we can always talk about money, but the ultimate point is always effectiveness. We all agree that there is a greater capacity for more aid to reach poor people in Burma than has been delivered. We greatly welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to achieve that.

The Committee was concerned, however, although we understood the reasoning, about the basing of the entire Burma DFID staff in Rangoon. Many of the expatriate organisations supporting the Burmese people in a whole variety of ways are perforce operating out of Thailand. The suggestion that a quarterly meeting with those groups is sufficient and that Thailand is only a plane ride away does not fulfil the need for regular contact. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will think again about whether a permanent DFID presence in Bangkok might still be necessary and justified, as the Committee recommended.

15 Nov 2007 : Column 897

The Committee visited Pakistan some time ago in the wake of the earthquake. Obviously, more recent events in that country are a considerable cause for concern. Will the Under-Secretary say whether consideration is being given to the way in which aid might be delivered in Pakistan in the changed circumstances? Put simply and starkly, it would be wrong for DFID money to go directly to a President who has suspended the democratic process. The people of Pakistan must not, however, be denied the effective aid that is needed to deal with issues of poverty and development.

My colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) has alluded to the fact that the Committee returned two weeks ago from a week-long visit to Afghanistan, where we had the opportunity to visit not only Government agencies, NGOs and our representatives in Kabul, but the field around Kabul—part of the Committee went to Helmand and part of it to Mazar-e-Sharif—to get some idea of the scale and diversity of the challenges facing all the agencies in Afghanistan, from the Government to the people and the international community. The Committee will produce a detailed report, but I do not think that I am anticipating that unreasonably by saying that, difficult and challenging as the situation is, we all recognise that we should be in Afghanistan and that it is a long-term commitment. It is a poor country and our objective must be to give it a chance to develop. The balance between military and civil development activity will probably need to be reassessed, but we will write shortly to the Secretary of State with our interim views, and then publish a detailed report in the new year.

The Committee remains somewhat unhappy about the Government’s policy towards the Palestinian occupied territories. Some of that is history, on which it is probably not appropriate to dwell too long. A huge opportunity was missed, however, when there was a Government of national unity, to provide some kind of continuing support. The Palestinian community is now very divided, and the international community has taken sides, supporting one half and isolating the other. Let me make it absolutely clear that I hold no brief whatever for Hamas, but it was elected by the Palestinian people. If we are trying to build a viable Palestinian state, there is a danger of being part of the process of increasing the wedge and division within and among the Palestinian people.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman. As he will be aware, when the Prime Minister spoke on foreign affairs on Monday evening he indicated his intention that I travel to the Palestinian territories and Israel in the coming weeks. Obviously, we are looking ahead to the Annapolis meeting. As was indicated in Prime Minister’s questions, there is a willingness for financial resources to be committed in support not simply of the peace and reconciliation efforts, but of the economic development needs of those communities. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the matter is receiving urgent attention from the Government and Ministers.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful for that. Perhaps this is a subject for a another debate, but I remain concerned that, as things stand, the international community has added to, rather than solved, the problems of the people of Palestine.

15 Nov 2007 : Column 898

Having made those specific comments about countries where we have a direct engagement, one positive story was our visit to Vietnam in the summer. The Committee was impressed by DFID’s contribution and the value that it added to the programme there. Given that we are contributing £50 million a year—a substantial amount—to a country in which we do not have a long-standing record, part of the reason for the visit was to determine whether we were adding value that other donors could not provide. We were persuaded that we were doing that. It is worth placing on the record that Vietnam has the look of a success story in development terms: it has every prospect of making the transition from a low-income country to a middle-income country in short order.

Next Section Index Home Page