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25 Mar 2008 : Column 50WH—continued

Our mission in Afghanistan is part of an international coalition, which is NATO-led and Afghan-invited. We are supporting the Afghan Government and enabling them to spread the rule of law and democracy—Afghan democracy. We cannot simply sit back, renege on our commitments and allow Afghanistan once again to fail and return to the dark ages. To do so would allow renewed sanctuary for the terrorists who seek to attack us. Similarly, we should not allow Afghanistan to be
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sacrificed to an illegal and appalling opium economy. Instead, without imposing our own ideals, we must support the growth of Afghanistan into a nation of stability—a nation whose people live with confidence, freely and without fear. That process will be neither easy nor quick, as I have said to my hon. Friend. It cannot be pursued without the dedication, bravery and ingenuity of our armed forces personnel, of whom we should be very proud, and I am enormously pleased by what my hon. Friend has said about them.

I shall say a few words about licit production. Even in Helmand, where production is high, as my hon. Friend has said, only a third of the arable, cultivated land is under poppy cultivation. To allow licit cultivation of heroin would risk drawing people even further into poppy cultivation, when they ought to be growing food for their own consumption or potentially for exportation in niche markets, thereby assisting their own economy. Those are the reasons why we do not support it. It is not because the Americans tell us not to, but because the Afghan Government are against it and because it does not make sense.

Paul Flynn: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Afghans certainly lead on drug control and drug production? It has been claimed that half of the members of the Karzai Government profit from the narco trade, including one leading drug baron who is a relative of Karzai. My right hon. Friend, in his reply, showed that he is still in denial and that he has failed to recognise the utter disaster. We have failed militarily and with regard to drugs. In spite of the Minister’s pious comments, we must recognise that there has been no success.

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We have run out of time and have to move on to the next debate.

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Rural Development Overseas

1 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Cummings. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, especially as we have spent so many happy hours together dissecting the finer points of regional government on the Communities and Local Government Committee. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate, and to the Minister for his time.

The issue of rural poverty in developing countries has interested me since I witnessed it at first hand some years ago when I worked for Oxfam and lived for a while in India, where I met poor rural farmers and came to understand some of the challenges that they face. I am not a development expert, but I learned three important lessons during my time working for Oxfam.

The first is the importance of first-hand experience and seeing for oneself the fragile existence of many rural farmers. For them, the issues are not millennium development goals or economic growth, but bare existence, the survival of their family and being able to put food into their children’s mouths from month to month, from week to week and even from day to day.

The second important lesson is that small interventions can have an enormous impact. I saw that clearly in Oxfam’s work all those years ago, and there are more recent examples, many of which are contained in a report that I commend to the Minister: “Unheard Voices”, which was produced by Concern Worldwide, deals with many of the policies adopted by that charity’s programme, including crop management, increasing the conservation focus of farming, improving the marketing of agricultural products by poor rural farmers and encouraging polyculture, which includes multi-cropping, companion planting and the promotion of beneficial weeds—all without the benefit of genetically modified crops or vast amounts of fertiliser, I am happy to say—and which leads to more diverse and more secure crops for many poor rural farmers.

The report quotes an interesting-sounding study by the university of Essex, which undertook

The following passage is the exciting bit for anyone who really wants a difference to be made to rural poverty:

In other words, the greatest benefit from that kind of approach actually translates into benefits for the poorest farmers.

The third important lesson that I learned at Oxfam was that one cannot separate the provision of support and assistance from people’s rights, and that it is vital to champion their right to be heard and to influence at policy level the decisions that affect their lives. As I have said, I heard that at Oxfam, but I have also come across
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it more recently as chairman of the all-party group on tribal peoples. An important focus of the group is to champion the ratification by the United Kingdom of International Labour Organisation convention No. 169, which emphasises that the rights of tribal peoples to be protected from incursions by everything from logging to mining, and from denial of their land rights, are a crucial part of maintaining their sustainable rural lifestyles. Such rights are also invaluable in respect of the more dispossessed, the landless rural poor and those mainstream farming communities that suffer from extreme poverty. Their voices need to be heard by national Governments in policy making, and donors and Governments need to reflect their priorities in strategies and listen to their voices.

What Oxfam understood then, and what Concern Worldwide has highlighted in its report, is that rural poverty is the hidden giant of poverty in developing countries. It is hidden because national Governments, non-governmental organisations, multilateral agencies and even bilateral missions are often based in reasonably comfortable, air-conditioned offices in national capitals. They often do not do what I managed to do in India all those years ago, and get out to see for themselves rural poverty and the impact on rural people’s lives of development policies.

Rural poverty is a giant, because 75 per cent. of the world’s poor live in rural areas. If 1.25 billion people live with the threat of hunger—that number is frequently used—then some 900 million people live in rural poverty. The UN millennium project’s hunger taskforce classified the number of hungry people in the world into four specific categories: the first category contains 160 million urban household members; the second category contains 64 million herders, fishers and forest-dependent people, including the tribal peoples whom I have mentioned; the third category contains 176 million rural landless household members; and the fourth category contains 400 million people who live in farm households. A massive proportion of the overall number of hungry people in the world live in rural areas.

Most of the world’s poor depend directly or indirectly on agriculture and the natural resources in their vicinity, but, unfortunately, aid to agriculture has fallen sharply in the past 25 years. Concern Worldwide stated:

The numbers are staggering:

The fear is that the same trend is at work in our Government’s programme. In its report, “Tackling rural poverty in developing countries”, the National Audit Office asked Department for International Development country teams for their estimates of the proportion of their expenditure that benefited people in rural poverty. Fewer than half described their country programmes as more rural than non-rural. I would welcome it if the Minister were to provide more detailed statistics on whether the trend over time has been towards or against aid to agricultural areas.

There is more promising evidence of increasing commitment by national Governments and donors. In 2003, African Governments recognised the importance of increased support to agriculture and adopted the
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comprehensive Africa agriculture development programme, which includes commitments to increase market access through improved rural infrastructure, to increase food supply and reduce hunger across the region by increasing smallholder productivity, and to improve agricultural research. African Governments also committed themselves to spending 10 per cent. of their national budgets on agriculture by 2008.

In 2006, the alliance for a green revolution in Africa was founded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with a commitment to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalise African agriculture. The alliance’s goal is that farmers will be able to double or even triple their yields within 10 to 20 years. Judging by the Essex university work, that is an achievable objective, if the political and social will are there.

More recently, Jeffrey Sachs has been leading discussions about the establishment of a fund for an African green revolution. Its structure would be similar to that of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and it would aim to attract up to $10 billion to be used to fund projects that help poor farmers. It is hoped that it will be established later in 2008.

The increasing international attention to agriculture has been reinforced by the World Bank’s “World Development Report 2008”, which focused on agriculture for development. It stated:

It made a plea for increased support:

The Government are committed to the millennium development goals. However, it is no exaggeration to say that their objectives on poverty reduction worldwide cannot be met without fully addressing rural poverty reduction. I am sure that the Minister is itching to get to his feet and say, “We do focus on it” and list the White Paper on international development, the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006 and, above all, the 2005 policy paper, “Growth and poverty reduction: the role of agriculture”. That was a good document, which contained welcome aims and priorities and recognised the importance of small farms and of the voice of the poor, particularly in the commitment to supporting the Governments of developing countries to

which is welcome. There is a commitment to

However, criticisms can be made—and have been made—of both the content and the implementation of that policy.

DFID’s policy seems exclusively to focus on agriculture as a means of achieving economic growth. DFID recognises that and says, in “Growth and poverty reduction: the role of agriculture”, that this

However, that means that DFID’s policy risks overlooking the role that agriculture plays not only in nurturing
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growth, but in enabling farmers simply to feed their families, in providing jobs and in the management of natural resources. DFID is now taking an even narrower view than the World Bank, which at least defines agriculture as not only an economic activity, but a livelihood and a provider of environmental resources—quoting the World Bank approvingly is not something that I do lightly.

Several Select Committee reports and DFID’s interim evaluation of its agriculture policy have highlighted concerns. Effective support by DFID to poor farmers requires action, but DFID’s evaluation, published in April 2007, says that there is a:

DFID country

One possible explanation is that, unlike Oxfam, DFID has been a little less enthusiastic about taking its staff out of national capitals and into rural areas. As the Public Accounts Committee pointed out in its report on 10 December 2007, some key DFID staff spend little time in rural areas:

In November last year, the International Development Committee concluded that

More recently, in January 2008, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the

and the

The PAC analysed that a little more deeply in its December report:

In conclusion, I shall ask the Minister a few key questions. I understand that it is difficult to provide on-the-spot answers to some questions, and I would be happy if some were answered in writing, if the Minister wishes to do so. First, in reviewing their agriculture policy this year, will the Government address that growing imbalance and put the needs of rural farmers and rural communities at the heart of their policy making, which so much evidence shows must be done? Secondly, will
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they reject that one-size-fits-all approach and identify, monitor and try to measure specific countries and agricultural communities in which an increased focus on agriculture and rural poverty could make a difference? Thirdly, how will they respond to the establishment of a global fund for the African green revolution and will they contribute to it? Fourthly, will the proportion of United Kingdom support to agriculture, which Concern Worldwide believes has declined over the past 20 years, now increase? Fifthly, will the UK Government address in practice—they have begun to do so in policy, at least—the rights of people in rural areas? For instance, will they ratify International Labour Organization convention No. 169 to support the rights of tribal peoples in rural areas and protect their way of life? Will they encourage partner countries actively to engage farming communities and the landless poor in their policy making? Perhaps then the unheard voices that Concern Worldwide has mentioned will, after all, be heard.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) on securing this timely debate. Tackling rural poverty is crucial to the achievement of the millennium development goals. Some 820 million people in the developing world are hungry, and more than 500 million of them live in rural areas. The majority of them depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and for food security. Agriculture and rural development are clear priorities for the Department for International Development.

DFID supports rural development in more than 20 countries. Our work is supported by a cadre of 49 professional livelihoods advisers whose policy expertise covers agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries, rural development, food security and natural resources management. DFID spends around £160 million each year on livelihoods programmes, much of which goes to rural areas. On top of that, our health, education, infrastructure, water and sanitation, governance, and other programmes, contribute to sustainable rural development. The £200 million that we have committed to agricultural research is a testament to our commitment to rural areas and agriculture.

I am just remembering my own recent experiences in Vietnam and Nepal. Agriculture is key in rural areas, as is the work that we do on roads development in rural areas, which has a positive impact on schooling, employment and health. We also have some health programmes in rural areas, such as one that I visited in Nepal, with midwives who get out on bicycles to assist mothers with pregnancies where, ordinarily, that would not have been so.

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