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Despite a Government who have set out a bold agenda for development, an integrated international community funding development system in the country assistance framework and numerous peace agreements
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over the years, combat between rebels, militants and the Government army continues at an alarming rate. In turn, the conflict has led to intolerable suffering for the million or more DRC citizens who have been displaced. Child soldiers have been mentioned, and around 11 million children under the age of 17 are currently not in education. It is obvious that the majority are not child soldiers, but a substantial number have been or are currently serving as child soldiers to the militias. A recent report by the Institute for Security Studies has suggested that children between the ages of 11 to 17 are favoured because they are more susceptible to indoctrination. It is imperative for the DRC’s future that its future doctors, bankers, architects, nurses and teachers get back into the education system. We should highlight activities such as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s “archives for Africa” programme because they are an excellent way of trying to give education facilities directly to countries, such as the DRC, that otherwise simply would not have them.

On health, the UN news platform—the Integrated Regional Information Network—recently suggested that between half a million and 1 million people die of malaria every year in the DRC. According to its sources, more than 5 million people a year are infected with malaria and despite drugs being sold up to 10 times cheaper than the internationally recommended retail price—thanks to partnerships with key international organisations—they are still not readily available to the majority of the DRC’s population. Indeed, with 70 per cent. of the population living on less than $1 a day, the drugs are still out of the price range of many people. The alarming rate at which refugee camps have sprung up means that effective sanitation and clean water are not a luxury many people escaping from rape, torture and killing are provided with.

In the Kichanga camp, there is only one water pump for 5,000 people and no latrines. If we are going to get serious about meeting MDGs 4, 6 and 7, we must rectify simple development problems such as that.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s comments and I agree with pretty much all that he has said. I am sure that he has considered the scale of the problem. The UK Government are arguably the largest bilateral donor. My hon. Friend the Minister recently mentioned the £50 million put into the pool to which the MOD, the FCO and DFID all contribute. The scale of the problem in the Congo is enormous and there is only so much any one country can do, which is why the EU, the UN and other potentially large donors—it is notable that the French and to some degree the Belgians were the biggest donors on record—should do more. Essentially, this is a matter for the international community, rather than just the UK solving the MDG goals.

Mr. Lancaster: That is a fair point, and I hope that my comments are balanced. I should also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has a keen interest in this subject. I am attempting to be balanced in my comments and am simply saying that DFID has done a good job in the DRC. I commend it on that, but there is much more that all of us can do. The British Government have a role to play as a leader to try to draw together the other nations to ensure that more is done in the region. The hon. Gentleman referred to that point.

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Time is quite short, so I will move on to talk about peacekeeping, which was mentioned by all hon. Members. As has been mentioned, the United Nations has its largest peacekeeping force in the world stationed in the DRC. There are about 17,000 UN troops and approximately 1,000 police. Although progress has been made, it is clear that the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is spread too thin and is finding it difficult to defend civilians. The hon. Member for Islington, North also raised concerns about the potential crimes that have been committed by the UN. Although I do not want to discuss that in detail, because I understand those crimes are being investigated, I would like to make some sensible suggestions about how the UN could do more in relation to peacekeeping.

First, we could insist that the Security Council approve peacekeeping missions with rules of engagement designed to protect civilians from grave harm. The Security Council can in theory exercise that authority under chapter VII of the charter, but in the past, council members have attempted to water down peacekeeping operations. That has meant operations have not always happened when perhaps they should. Secondly, we should challenge UN member states to increase their support for the rapid and effective deployment of peacekeeping missions in the world’s most troubled regions, such as the DRC. A report by the US Council on foreign relations released last year summarised the problem. It stated that

Existing forces lack the ability to respond rapidly to emerging crises and suffer from a deficit in military doctrine and expertise specifically to protect civilian populations. The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned that point. Perhaps the Minister could comment on whether he believes that Britain should exert leadership by channelling more of its international development budget into funding for training, equipment and the deployment of a new breed of regional as well as UN peacekeepers? Perhaps we should consider having forces that are prepared to engage in peacemaking in order to prevent massive human rights abuses—that may be a step too far, but it is at least a thought.

Thirdly, we must greatly enhance the peacekeeping capacities of regional organisations. We should begin with the African Union. The UN charter is clear on that point, under chapter VIII article 53, the Security Council has the authority to support the efforts of regional organisations committed to promoting international peace and security. Will the Minister say whether he feels enough is currently being done in that area? Perhaps finally the Minister could outline whether he feels that the current level of UN peacekeepers is adequate and whether he believes greater work should be done in investing in mentoring schemes for the police and army, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud.

As we know, a new Government were elected in 2006 and despite heavy fighting, democratic elections took place. Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Islington, North, since their election, the DRC Government have promoted a policy of containment and appeasement. In line with international wishes, they have highlighted the importance of holding free and fair elections. It remains a continuing problem that,
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unless we can reintegrate some of those militia forces into the DRC army or demobilise them completely, they will continue to contribute to the conflict.

Following the signing of the Goma agreement between the Government and 22 armed militias, the Government have set up a peace programme for eastern Congo—the Amani programme. They have appointed Abbé Apollinaire Malu Malu, a Catholic priest, to spearhead the efforts towards peace. That has been seen by many in the DRC as an important stepping stone towards peace in eastern Congo, especially north and south Kivu. However, to date, the Amani programme has achieved very little. It is crucial that the DRC Government and the international Government work together to move from rhetoric on paper to strong action.

The DRC Government have recently published the poverty reduction strategy paper—PRSP—which will be partly funded by the country assistance framework. The CAF is a common strategic approach for economic assistance to the DRC in the post-election period. It has been drawn up by key international donors and the DRC Government. The PRSP emphasises the need to break with past practices to ensure a dramatic improvement of living conditions throughout the country as a condition for sustained peace and eventual economic recovery. The PRSP builds on the 2001 interim PRSP and enjoys broad support among all key constituencies.

What is most appealing to me regarding the PRSP is the manner in which it has been drawn together. Each district produced its own PRSP drawn up by local consultation with faith-based organisations, labour unions, non-governmental organisations, women’s groups, youth associations and community representatives. Those were then amalgamated into provincial-level PRSPs and were eventually made into the national PRSP. In total, around 35,000 people participated in drawing up a grass-roots- based development programme. We should congratulate the DRC Government on that. We should also congratulate DFID on the role that it played in achieving that aim. One hopes that we can achieve the same in Afghanistan, where a similar process is taking place.

The aims of the PRSP are to promote good governance and consolidate peace; to consolidate macro-economic stability and economic growth; to improve access to social services and reduce vulnerability; to combat HIV/AIDS; and to promote community dynamics. Those are all worthy aims, but I should be grateful if the Minister outlined exactly how DFID will continue to channel its funds to ensure that they are met.

3.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. As ever, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to his questions and those of other hon. Members with an interest in this topic.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) raised a series of issues that have considerable resonance in the context of the DRC, but are also of wider strategic importance in relation to peacekeeping. I will write to him to set out in more detail our view of the current peacekeeping capacity of the UN system and the efforts that we are making to improve that capacity. We do not believe that there is enough peacekeeping capacity worldwide at the moment,
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and it is incumbent on the entire international community to meet that challenge. As the hon. Gentleman said, part of that must be to raise the capacity of regional organisations such as the African Union, with which we are already working and we intend to continue to do so. I will happily write to him with more detail.

Mr. Joyce: The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes mentioned British military assistance training teams. My instinct is that the Congo would be unlikely to succeed in a bid in that respect, because those teams are in great demand all over the world, but does the Minister agree that security in the Congo is the No. 1 priority, the greatest imperative, and that there are things that the UK Government could probably do that do not involve providing military assistance but that could help in time to improve the region’s security? For example, we are heavily involved in EUSEC—the European security co-ordinating body in the Congo—and there are things that we can do as civilians in that theatre. In another theatre that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Afghanistan, we could be involved in training and similar efforts to facilitate other trainers going out there, for example, to assist with security capacity in the region, but it does not have to be military assistance. Ultimately, DFID has a big role to play in that.

Mr. Thomas: I agree that we can do more on security sector reform and more generally. It is also appropriate to make the broader point about the need for more peacekeeping capacity, at least in the strategic context. My hon. Friend refers to broader ways in which we could engage with security sector reform. Given his long-standing interest in this area, he may be aware that we are working on a comprehensive programme to tackle security sector reform, which we estimate will cost collectively £80 million. We are not yet able to launch such a programme: the detailed design work is still under way. However—my hon. Friend and other hon. Members may not be aware of this—we have already given significant funding to help with different elements of improving security, not least during the transition. We provided support to enable the police and justice systems to begin to develop, so that they could handle security during the elections. No one would say that the elections in the DRC were perfect, but most international observers would agree that they went better than many would have expected. Some of the work that we did with the UN Development Programme, for example, in helping to put in place effective election security, was undoubtedly important.

In the defence sector, we are working on the demobilisation and reintegration workstreams that are needed, particularly if we are to tackle the problem of child soldiers and, more generally, demobilising those who have been part of conflict. A key challenge that we face, to which all hon. Members have alluded, is building up an effective justice sector that can end the culture of impunity in the DRC. Again, we have been providing support with a range of organisations to begin to develop what is a fledgling sector.

The other strategic point that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes touched on but did not go into detail on related to reform of the operation of the UN development system. The UK, through DFID, with Foreign Office colleagues, has been championing that with some success. The humanitarian pooled fund, to which a wide variety of donors contribute and which
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has NGOs on the board, is, after some initial problems, working effectively and helping to ensure that all donors work together to tackle the many different problems in the DRC, so instead of many individual programmes, there is now better co-ordination. UN development system reform is by no means complete, but that is one area in which there has been success.

Mr. Joyce: Christian Aid has recently pointed out that, from to time, it can be quite difficult to find where the UNDP has added value. By no stretch of the imagination does this apply to all parts of the UNDP effort, but in some cases, it might be worth examining whether there is scope for funding to be given directly to local NGOs to perform roles on the ground, because that gives some of those very competent local NGOs much greater buy-in to the process than if the funding comes through the UNDP. Often, it makes perfect sense for things to be co-ordinated in that way, but there is sometimes scope, from time to time, for funding to go directly to those NGOs, and it is worth while the Minister, from time to time, having a look to see whether that might be possible.

Mr. Thomas: I accept that point. We need to have a series of ways in which we fund organisations to respond, but NGOs, as well as other aid agencies, need to co-ordinate much more effectively than they have done in the past, not only in the DRC but in a range of other development and humanitarian situations. Helping to establish pooled funds is one way to help to incentivise better co-ordination, but I take my hon. Friend’s point that, on occasion, we need some of the more traditional funding routes to be available to NGOs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, there has never been a better chance to help the democratically elected Government and the people of the DRC to achieve the permanent end to conflict and the routes out of poverty to prosperity that all hon. Members want to see. As my hon. Friend made clear, the DRC matters, not only because its 60 million people deserve much better than they have had to date, but because that vast country, with nine neighbours, is of huge strategic importance: it is vital to the stability of central Africa.

The DRC is also of international importance in the context of the fight against climate change. The Congo basin forest, which straddles 10 countries although the vast bulk sits within the DRC, is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world and is suffering deforestation at an alarming rate. Again, the international community needs to work with the Governments in all 10 countries, but particularly the DRC, to begin to slow down that deforestation. In that context, the Congo basin forest fund, for which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set aside £50 million and which we will launch shortly with the support of COMIFAC—the Commission for the Forests of Central Africa—countries and, we hope, with other donors, is potentially of huge importance to helping to achieve that objective.

Jeremy Corbyn: I support the fund that has been set up, which is very welcome. Will the Minister also say something about what is being done to prevent the sale of illegally logged tropical hardwoods, many of which emanate from the Congo basin and which find their way into the furniture factories and on to the building sites of western Europe, north America and China?
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This is not easy, but unless we choke off the sales of that illegally logged timber, the deforestation will continue apace.

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He may be aware of work being driven by the European Union, in which DFID has been playing a part, on forest law enforcement, governance and the trade agenda. The EU seeks to create incentives for developing countries such as the DRC and others to improve the governance of their forest sectors, to demonstrate that the timber supplied to international markets is from a verifiably legal source. The EU is considering what further steps it can take beyond providing simple resources to support improvements in governance, and we are working with it to identify further ways to help curb the trade in illegal forest products.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes asked for evidence of the continuing successes that have resulted from the aid we have already given. Through our programme, we have already provided funding to help to vaccinate more than 1.2 million Congolese children against killer diseases. We have been working on education and on health, as I said earlier. We have provided supplementary food to some 350,000 people; we have ensured that about 70,000 children were treated in feeding centres; and we have provided medical assistance directly to some 23,000 victims of sexual violence. We have also supported the provision of 1 million bed nets, which will protect approximately 2 million people in the DRC from malaria every day.

Infrastructure is another key issue for the DRC. Our funding has helped to ensure the reopening of a key road from Ubundu to Kisangani. Trade has increased dramatically as a result, with 33 times more agricultural produce moving along it. Again, that is a direct result of our DRC funding.

Hon. Members will, I hope, be pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to visit the DRC shortly to see the situation for himself. We hope that he will be able to go to the east, to see for himself how the peace process has developed. As hon. Members know, a peace conference took place in Goma early in January. It produced not only a ceasefire, but a series of resolutions and reports on the causes of conflict, and it set out possible solutions.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred to the Amani programme, the follow-up mechanism to the peace conference. He rightly noted the appointment of Abbe Malu Malu, who I am told is an extremely impressive individual. He is leading at the commission on peace and security, and he is the national co-ordinator of the Amani programme. The commission, which includes representatives of all armed groups, is making slow but positive progress. We seek to support that conference. We have had a diplomat stationed in the east since November, to support the conference proceedings and to help with the follow-up, and we have seconded a stabilisation adviser to MONUC—the United Nations mission in the DRC—to provide further support following the conference. More generally, we have provided some £35 million in humanitarian assistance, the bulk of which went last year to eastern DRC.

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