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10 July 2008 : Column 501WH—continued

As to bringing stability, the Afghan national army has been praised for the way that it has taken on a lot of the training and for beginning to be part of operations.
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However, as has already been explained in the debate, the police are a totally different story. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield made the point, I think, that countries have standing armies and, if they are not at war somewhere, those armies, while they go through training cycles, are available to be deployed for security missions; countries also have standing police forces, but they are always engaged in day-to-day operations, rather than just training. There is not a body of police who are spare and can be moved to a zone of instability to bring training and justice. Therefore, the international community probably needs to build up a resource of police trainers. Those should be the best police, to take the message about how to engage in policing. So much of what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan cannot be enforced unless the police can deal with corruption and the drugs trade, and work for the stability that we are trying to bring to the country. We need a way to bring that justice into our development.

One of the most frustrating things, for anyone involved in development, concerns the desire to know that the money that is put in is used effectively. The US puts in six times the amount of development money that the UK does, but it achieves only twice the impact on the ground. It would be good to hear from the Minister about our dialogue with the US Government on trying to improve their aid effectiveness. That resource could achieve so much more for the people of Afghanistan in the long run and for the stability of the region. Donor co-ordination is crucial to securing that aid effectiveness.

I welcome the Minister’s news about the opening of the maternity unit in Lashkar Gah. Perhaps that was a case in which we saw on-the-hoof aid co-ordination, because the UK capital grant went to building the accommodation block for the midwife training unit, on the understanding that the US would fund the training; but nothing was in writing and the US then said it did not have the money for the training. However, because the block is there, the US money has now been secured and the training is going ahead. I welcome that positive development.

I want to reinforce what the Committee Chairman said about poppy cultivation. There are no quick-fix, simple solutions. The issues are security and alternative livelihoods. The message also needs to come across that the poppy is not the easiest of crops. It is highly labour-intensive and would not necessarily be the crop of choice in a free environment. I do not think that many people realise that something else that emerged during our visit: how much damage poppy cultivation does to the local community. The children who help to harvest the crop develop an addiction just from handling the poppies. There are local addiction problems that need to be tackled as part of our investment.

I also want to reinforce the issue of the status of women. Failing to engage the women of Afghanistan means denying half the resource of the country to its development and its future. We saw many positive things in that context. We visited the microfinance initiative in Kabul and saw women entrepreneurs. Women got the microfinance loans, because they could be trusted to repay them. The men were far too unreliable a business investment.

Mr. Soames: Nonsense.

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Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) says from a sedentary position, “Oh, balls,” but that was the practical reality on the ground that was discovered.

Mr. Ellwood: I am not sure he said that.

Sir Robert Smith: Perhaps he did not; it was something to that effect.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman must have misheard.

Sir Robert Smith: I must have misheard him, yes.

On the ground, that was the practical experience. Many business women starting up small businesses and bringing development to the economy of Afghanistan were refugees coming back from Pakistan and re-establishing life in their country.

The need to develop local governance also needs to be emphasised. Afghanistan is a big country and cannot be managed from the centre with a one-size-fits-all solution. The community development councils are an important start, but I worry that they may not be built on without a lot of will and pressure behind the relevant development.

I declare an interest in relation to the next issue that I want to raise: I have shareholdings in Shell and Rio Tinto Zinc. During our visit, we heard about the country’s resources, which include the second largest reserves of copper in the world. What training and guidance are being given to the Government of Afghanistan to ensure that they get the best benefit from their mineral resources and do not end up being exploited when those resources are developed? What advice and development will be given on negotiating contracts and ensuring that they are effective?

A perennial problem is helicopter infrastructure—the lack of helicopter support to our military—and it cannot be over-emphasised how much the deployment of helicopters could assist in development. Helicopters are required for development transport as well as military transport. I stress the need for a dedicated plane to be used at the behest of the civilian operation. Not only is that useful for getting experts on to the ground when and where they are needed, efficiently and effectively; it also enables people to be brought to conferences from the regions of Afghanistan and to have an input to development conferences and development decision making.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex has highlighted the tensions between co-ordinating military and civilian work. In their response to paragraph 85, the Government say that there is a move towards key military personnel having a longer period of rotation in theatre to ensure greater co-ordination and effectiveness between the two sides. I would be grateful to the Minister if he highlighted how the overlap of deployment is developing. The Government say in response to paragraph 45 of our report that there is more effective joint operation on the ground between civil and military authorities. Will the Minister update us on what has been achieved in Musa Qala?

One concern raised by the Committee was the converse of that raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. In Sangin, where the military had engaged with the local
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community, it was decided that a school was the right thing to build, whereas those involved in the development thought that that was probably not the right thing to do at the time, as the resources needed to make use of the school would not be available and could not be co-ordinated. That is an extremely important point. Whether we need military people to deal with hostility on the ground or to do some of the physical work, we still need the expertise in and experience of how development works best that have been built up around the world. Only effective development will bring the rewards of long-term stability and security. Three months ago, the Minister told us that the school in Sangin would be staffed within three months. It is three months since that reply, and it would be interesting to hear whether the school has been staffed.

On our visit to the hospital in Lashkar Gah, we heard that immunisation and health support crosses into Taliban areas. In our report, we say that more should be done to boost the provision of health care, as crossing borders and providing support, without recognising who is in charge militarily, can create greater good will with the public—the local community that we are trying to win around. In response to paragraph 64, the Government say that they are looking to improve the effectiveness of health delivery. Will the Minister come back to us on that?

I reinforce what was said when we started. The message that we must get across to the public, through the UK press and broadcasters, is that Iraq and Afghanistan are different stories. British troops are losing their lives in both countries, but the political reasons for being there are very different. The need for us to be there, too, is very different. Afghanistan will be a success only if we make it a long-term commitment.

We have seen the price of neglect in the past. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, we see snapshots on our visits of the life and work of the Department. I remember many pictures from that visit. I remember the spirit of the small business women, many of them refugees, who were developing their businesses with microfinance. I remember the courage of the woman MP whom we met who had lived through the Taliban regime and was now a Member of Parliament in her own country. She had not returned to the country as a refugee but had lived there throughout the Taliban regime and knew exactly what harm had happened to her country. I remember the farmer whose clean well water I was able to drink safely thanks to DFID investment in Lashkar Gah.

The message is that, whenever possible, we should put our resources through the trust fund managed by the World Bank, so that we can build up the capacity of the people of Afghan to deliver their own needs. That is an effective and positive way of doing it, but it means that we sometimes need to reinforce the message of what we are doing. We received feedback on our visit that people did not realise that British money was behind those projects. People had heard that we were spending money, but they wanted to know what it was being used for. We are achieving so much through integration with the Afghan Government, but we are not necessarily receiving the recognition that we are helping to make some things possible. It is important to ensure that people understand why we are there and that we are playing a major part.

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I remember, too, that the hospital doctor was able to treat more patients—another positive message. Above all, however, was the enthusiasm of the young girls to be seen on the cover of our report. They were sitting in their classroom, and we saw them sharing their work and showing their enthusiasm for their work. Untapping the potential for the future of Afghanistan gives a positive message about why we need to be there. It reinforces the dedication of the UK civilian and military personnel, who have made possible so much. However, there is much more to do. With our support and good will, so much can be achieved.

3.35 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): As chair of the all-party group on Afghanistan, I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate.

I welcome the report of the International Development Committee, which was published in February. I am particularly pleased that it presents a well balanced and evidence-based assessment of current DFID activity in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the Committee Chairman, who introduced the report in an excellent speech. Indeed, his speech and the Committee’s report fully recognise the important work that Britain is doing on reconstruction and development, yet they also drew attention to the challenges of delivering ongoing development in an area of conflict. The country needs help at almost every level—with its infrastructure, houses, hospitals, jobs, state institutions, police force and civil society.

I am pleased that the report supports the three main objectives of DFID’s programme: to build effective state institutions; to improve economic management, and the effectiveness of aid to Afghanistan; and to improve the livelihoods of rural people. Those are the major challenges. I also pleased that the Committee supported 80 per cent. of the DFID budget going through the Afghan Government. That happens mainly via the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is administered by the World Bank. In passing, it is worth noting that the trust fund’s accounts are audited by an external agency, PricewaterhouseCoopers. That helps us to assess the effectiveness of our aid, which is not always possible for other money going to Afghanistan.

In that context, the allocation of additional funds for development and stabilisation assistance announced by the Prime Minister in December are particularly welcome. The additional £450 million between 2009 and 2012 breaks down into about £115 million for each financial year, with another £105 million for the new interdepartmental stabilisation aid fund. That is really important, given the context of our debate and the thoughtful contributions of hon. Members—with the one exception of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). I shall return to that in a moment.

The additional funds include £30 million for the new Afghanistan investment climate facility, which aims not to tackle climate change but to assist business development in Afghanistan. There is also further support for the reconstruction trust fund, and stronger support for provincial and local government. A number of hon. Members alluded to the fact that we need to build up not only the central Government of Afghanistan, but local councils and governors’ offices.

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There are new programmes to support civil service reforms, including a new national justice programme, and an additional £10 million for microfinance initiatives has been provided. That money is extremely important to women, particularly those who have been widowed, to enable them to start businesses and support their families. Most important, there is additional money for horticulture and livestock, and agricultural development in Helmand itself. Again, I pay tribute to the Committee for noting the work that still needs to be done on rural development, in particular the assistance still needed in Helmand.

We should also note that £55 million was given last August to help to pay the salaries of Afghan teachers, doctors and nurses, and that an additional £3 million was given to help tackle the growing food shortages. Those things are really important. We know why tackling the food shortages is important, but the money for teachers, doctors and nurses is critical, because it helps to build the legitimacy of the Afghan state. It is important that such amounts have been made available for teachers and doctors, but they need to keep up with the growth in wages in the private sector in Afghanistan so that there is a good capacity of teaching staff.

It is important that we note that such measures are being taken, but we should also ask whether they are effective. As has already been said, reconstruction in Afghanistan is happening at different rates in different provinces. Five million children are in school in the country, but more needs to be done, especially in rural areas. Access to basic health care has risen, from 9 to 82 per cent., and the proportion of women who receive antenatal care has increased from 5 to 30 per cent. MPs visiting Helmand have spoken of improved opportunities and growth in the number of jobs, although they recognise that a huge amount of development needs to take place. It is not a uniform picture.

Having made it clear that progress is being made at different rates around the country, I should like to turn briefly to Helmand, with the caveat, which we must all remember, that Helmand is not Afghanistan, and we should therefore treat the two differently. Last month, I welcomed the chairman, deputy chairman and two female members of the Helmand provincial council to Parliament. What they told the all-party group is instructive to us all. They made it clear that they wanted enhanced health care, more education, better road systems, the opportunity to grow vegetables and other staple crops, and factories to be constructed, by which they meant factories in their population centres. The councillors’ comments were insightful and informative, and I could not help thinking how fortunate Afghanistan is to have such committed and articulate local politicians. The women, even if they were reticent at first, were incredibly articulate and forthcoming about women’s needs in that country. It was clear that they knew exactly what to deliver for local politicians and how to go about it, if only they were given half a chance.

The members of the provincial council had a clear understanding of their development needs and how, with international help, development could be delivered. They told me that it would be impossible to achieve the sort of Helmand that they wanted in future without international aid. They asked us a number of times to give a commitment that Britain and other international donors were there for the long term. Obviously, we
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could not speak for other countries, but we did our best to reassure them that we felt that in this country there was cross-party consensus in favour of staying for the long term.

The councillors were honest about the lack of development of state institutions. Nevertheless, they were able to point out that progress was being made with local government, the governor’s office, their council, and the training of Afghan nationals for the police and army. Of course, they acknowledged that there was a long way to go, but they did not give a negative presentation; rather, they said that steady progress was being made.

It was clear from their visit and other evidence that channelling aid to construct a state is essential, and that a new generation of Afghan politicians who want progress and who understand democratic systems of government are emerging. They also emphasised that the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand was engaging with the local council and community development councils at a more local level to determine priorities, which I know from my own experience in Afghanistan. Those things were at an early stage, which is acknowledged by almost everyone, but the fact that the discussions on how money was going to be spent locally were taking place at all is worth mentioning.

On a previous visit to Afghanistan I met the DFID team in Kabul and their representative on the PRT in Helmand. I can only pay tribute to how they were working with local agencies and fledgling Government structures to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, so I could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. Indeed, I listened to his speech with a growing sense of alarm and unease, because I have heard the same from other Members, including the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who might wish to correct me when he speaks. I can see a narrative developing that says that DFID is not delivering in Afghanistan and that only the Army can deliver aid to the country. I am not sure that we have evidence to support that argument.

Mr. Soames: I tried carefully to differentiate Helmand and the rest of Afghanistan and acknowledged the marvellous work that DFID is doing in the latter. Both the Government response and the Committee’s report specifically refer to the UK effort in Helmand. In their response, the Government

That is precisely because they are faced with a very dangerous situation. I am simply asking that the Government consider carefully how they can better and more speedily run the programmes in Helmand to get the urgent results that we need.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I met with DFID representatives in Helmand and I shall go on to talk about how action can be speeded up, and about some of the difficulties of delivering aid in the province and how they might be overcome.

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