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10 July 2008 : Column 513WH—continued

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If the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) wants evidence for that, I suggest that he read the answer to parliamentary question 209680, which lists all the projects with which the Royal Engineers have been involved in Helmand province—education, security and law, health, roads, building a mosque and so forth. The list goes on and on. When I asked DFID that same question, I was told that it was paying for just one NGO to operate there at the moment, because it is so dangerous. When I asked how much it cost to employ a DFID person in Afghanistan, I was told that it was £250,000 a year. That is a colossal amount of money compared with the cost of a colonel from the Royal Engineers, who could be employed for £50,000 and do a pretty similar job.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex made the point that in some circumstances DFID does a fantastic job—I was in Sierra Leone two weeks ago—of investing money in the local system and ensuring that it trickles down to the front line. That is fantastic. However, in other circumstances, the infrastructure simply is not there for any of that money to reach the front line. It does not get from Kabul to Kandahar to Lashkar Gah, because the line is broken. A new form of expeditionary force, working under dangerous circumstances, might bridge the gap between war fighting, peacekeeping and nation building better than DFID. That would get the job done quicker, which would mean that our soldiers were less exposed. That is what we are talking about.

I do not dismiss DFID’s important work, but we must ask ourselves what is most important—Maslow’s hierarchy of development needs, one might say. Security, the rule of law and governance are the crucial aspects. Of course, schools and hospitals are important, but ask General Jones, General Craddock, General McNeill, or anyone else on the ground, and they will say, “You secure the area first, then you get some of the locals to start making their own decisions.” We did not do that in Afghanistan; we created a constitution that gave power to Kabul, ignoring the local jirgas and wise owls operating in the districts and councils. Only recently have we started to listen to them—about four years late. That is the trouble: we have taken a long time to work out that we will win over hearts and minds through local power bases.

I will draw an analogy. We are about embark, I guess—the Government seem to be pointing in this direction—on a huge programme to build nuclear power stations. If I was to go to Bournemouth and say, “Build me a nuclear power station,” nobody could do it. This country has no experience of building nuclear power stations. All the expertise did a runner to Canada and America, because that was where such projects were continuing. We will need help from outside—this is what the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is doing—because we do not have the ability. The same applies in Afghanistan, which does not have the ability to build a railroad—I do not think that it has ever built one. It cannot build roads on the desired scale to create the markets that will allow products to get from A to B safely.

Five months ago I met a Bangladeshi in Lashkar Gah drinking alcohol—that was the only way he could get his mind around it—before driving a truck full of fruit from Lashkar Gah to Kandahar to get his produce to market. It was costing the person who owned that fruit
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$4,000 to get through all the checkpoints, and to pay the driver enough money to rent the vehicle and to get there. That is not the way to build a market or the way the infrastructure should work. Those are the details that need considering, and possibly the Royal Engineers can play an increased role.

I have a final point to make about the Royal Engineers. Musa Qala, which has been taken more times than Tobruk—I think—is now in our hands. It kept falling, because we never won over hearts and minds. People in that town want one thing: a mosque. They asked DFID to build it, but for whatever reason—I am still investigating—it could not provide the goods. The Royal Engineers are now building that mosque that the people want so much. If hon. Members doubt that, I have the parliamentary answers to prove it. The Royal Engineers are managing that construction, and ISAF is paying for it. So we are seeing mission creep.

The hon. Member for City of Durham says that I am negative, and I am sorry if that is how I come across, but I have massive concerns about what we are doing in these dangerous situations. When DFID was created— 15 years ago?

John Battle: That’s correct.

Mr. Ellwood: I am glad that I got that right. It was created as a sort of spin-off of the FCO to make us better able to identify and scrutinise where aid was being spent. We now have to ask ourselves whether the world is a different place, and although DFID can work well, it is not necessarily the right vehicle to provide the transition from war fighting to peacekeeping.

Mr. Soames: The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) made a very good point about how successful DFID was in Bosnia. When I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces, at the height of the Bosnian campaign, it was too dangerous for development staff to be there. I remember a lance corporal who was given £3,000 and told to build a school. He came back with £1,000 change, having built a school with his section and got it up and running in four days. When it was safe, DFID came in and ran a marvellous reconstruction programme, which has put Bosnia back on its feet. Nobody is disputing the good work that DFID can do. However, sometimes, it is simply too treacherous, difficult and fundamentally dangerous for civilians with—frankly—a profoundly anti-military ethos to enter such an area and successfully do what we have to do if we are to stay on the ground.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend reminds me of Bosnia, where I served as a captain. In fact, when he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces, he visited our battalion in Paderborn as we were preparing to leave for Bosnia. He turned up without his wellington boots, and we had to find him a pair so that he could come out on to the training ground with us—but I do not want to digress. The important point is that after the war fighting, the first thing that I did, with 102 men, was to think about what I could do to keep those men busy and keep on the good side of the very people with whom we had had a bit of a fracas. We started building schools and
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sorting out the roads. I found out that I had a couple of brickies with me. I investigated getting some funds, which we got. It was the military that did that, because I was able to punch in, form a perimeter and do something in the centre. That is exactly where I believe that some form of expeditionary force needs to be considered.

Malcolm Bruce rose—

Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman rises, but I would like to make one more point. Perhaps the Committee would like to investigate how DFID performs in such areas, and whether it is worth re-evaluating its ability in these dangerous circumstances.

Malcolm Bruce: May I recount the conversation that we had with the Education Minister when we met him in Kabul? He said, “Please don’t build me any more schools. It is not schools that I need, but teachers.” DFID was funding his teachers.

Mr. Soames: We are not talking about Kabul.

Malcolm Bruce: That is where DFID’s budget is going, across the whole of Afghanistan. It cannot put teachers into schools in Helmand because of the security situation, and security is what our military needs to provide. Of course, there is an issue of co-operation between civilians and the military, but the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) seem to be very confused about the role of DFID. Building mosques is probably not top of DFID’s priority list.

Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Mosques are what the locals want, and are what will prevent them from joining the Taliban. Understanding hearts and minds, and the needs of the individuals, is paramount. If the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that, and he says that DFID does not do that, somebody must do. If DFID is pouring money into the top and paying for teachers, that is fantastic and long may it continue, but what I am saying is that we are not resolving issues at the pithead where things are tough. The Taliban are able to recruit because nothing really changes.

Last year, a senior DFID employee, who was giving evidence to the Defence Committee, said:

I do not know whether or not that is true; I hope that it is not. However, I know—having seen it myself—that there is a turf war going on between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, DFID and MOD. Hugh Powell is knocking heads together and doing a fantastic job.

I conclude by saying that time is running out in Afghanistan. We will be facing a civil war unless we review our ability to make an impact. The patience of the Afghans is limited, and we urgently need to review the transition from war fighting to peacekeeping to nation building.

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4.22 pm

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) had a distinguished career in the Royal Green Jackets. I welcome the practical military experience that he brings to development work. He described for us the roads and the lack of access to markets. We should listen to that detail.

I offer the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) about nine-tenths of my support with regard to the question about Helmand. I do not perhaps share the view of DFID expressed by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East. I would be disappointed if I felt that there was an anti-military ethos in DFID or in the NGOs. We have completed about half a dozen reports in the past few years on conflict resolution and the relationship between development workers and the military.

My experience of dealing with people in the military—I have visited places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and other African countries—is that they are very subtle thinkers who are asking development questions, which is reflected in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I welcome that. I do not want people to dismiss the military as though they were just gun toters holding the line. They think through such questions. At the same time, people in the military have to ask questions such as, “What is DFID doing? What can it do best? How does it best deliver with its own particular skills, experiences and abilities?”

When I was first elected to the House, Afghanistan was the poorest country in the world. It was at the bottom of every indicator: economic, health, education and life expectancy. We forget how far back Afghanistan was. Afghanistan poses a three-cornered problem: the security, military and violent conflict problem; the development problem; and the problem of poppy cultivation, production and distribution. That third factor makes the situation in Afghanistan different from that in Sierra Leone and Iraq, which is why we need to focus on it.

As a jibe at the hon. Gentleman, I have to say that I recall campaigning for Lord Baker, who was in charge of urban development programmes, to say that we should help to fund mosques in Britain to win hearts and minds—the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was a Minister at the time. The Conservative Government seemed to be opposed to that and also to giving mosques charity relief like Christian churches. If we had started down that road 30 years ago, we might have a slightly different problem in Britain now. The mosques are about hearts and minds. I am not sure whether DFID should be building them, but the whole cultural question is about development.

In the moments that I have left, I want to focus on a particular part of the report. I do not want to tackle the security issues; I just want to park them and say that I do not dismiss them. I want to focus on the deadly serious issue of drug trafficking. About 90 per cent. of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan. Drug availability is perhaps the most serious issue in my constituency. Heroin is killing people in the streets around me. Unless we tackle the development and security issues in Afghanistan and the issue of poppy cultivation, people in my constituency will die. I know that people serve in the military and die, but many in my
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constituency die of heroin. We must get a grip on heroin and hard drugs, because they are killing people in our constituencies.

Let me focus on a few paragraphs in the report that relate to poppy cultivation, drug trafficking, crop eradication and alternative livelihoods. The report said that the majority of farmers surveyed reported that

In fact, the Select Committee was told that, if a farmer was told that 50 per cent. of his field was to be destroyed, he would simply plant 50 per cent. more poppy. In addition, it found that eradication in 2007 mainly destroyed marginal fields and that deals were often struck between village elders and eradication teams that always resulted in the poorest farmers being targeted.

If we are to deal with poppy cultivation, we must adopt a new approach. We must tackle the issues and consider alternative livelihoods. In a sense, it is a micro-problem. What is the methodology of DFID and development thinkers that relates the eradication of the poppy with alternative livelihoods? Is it just words that are put together or is there really a strategy? The report says:

I say amen to that. Then we look at the Government’s response, which says:

whatever that might mean—

I vaguely assent to that. Then we go on to the welcome that it gives:

as the Chairman of our Committee spelled out—

I cannot wait another 30 years in my constituency, because young kids are dying of heroin addiction. We must get a grip on the problem, and quickly. We have to make a sense of those words “integrated and holistic”. I wrote in the margins of my copy, “We need to know what they mean, how they might work and what an integrated and holistic strategy looks like.” I have to tell the Minister that I am not yet convinced that development experts or DFID are yet there.

I want to make a couple of suggestions. Yes, 20 provinces are poppy free. The question is one of controlling traffic and all the rest of it. It is that relationship between alternative production and poppy control that needs more focus. Let me give an example. Opposition Members have referred to USAID working with the military. Well, they may not know that USAID follows quite a
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protectionist policy, set by the US Government, and that protectionist policy blocks access to certain crops and seeds that the US Government see as being in competition with their own crops back home in America. In other words, there is a restriction on what seeds and crops the Afghans can grow, because of protectionist agricultural policies in America. That is why the Afghans cannot buy the seeds. If there is a restriction on alternative crops and seeds, yes, they will grow melons, because they cannot grow other more productive crops. That is part of the problem that needs addressing by the international community, because protectionist US agricultural policies, backed up by agribusiness, deny access to crops that would knock out the poppy but would also inevitably compete in a world marketplace.

I would like to give another example that may be worth looking at. The other most difficult place in the world is probably Colombia, where of course all the cocaine comes from. The same issue applies: how do we deal with security and the cultivation of coca? I simply want to say to the Minister and through him to DFID that there are strategies for alternative livelihoods and those are whole-village strategies, as they call them in Colombia. They are run not by the Government or DFID, but usually by local communities or churches, as part of whole-region strategies.

Those strategies relate to points made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). I think that she read out a letter or referred to the remarks of the visitors from Afghanistan who came here. They said that they wanted better health care, schools, roads and the ability to grow vegetables and to build carpet and rug factories in their country. That is exactly what was said in Colombia. Let us adopt an integrated village approach, so that we tackle all those problems in a co-ordinated way, and we might then have a vision of what a holistic, integrated alternative livelihood strategy might be. Simply saying, “Can we plant one set of seeds that are different? And you are not allowed to plant the seeds that would really get you to the marketplace and make you money,” is not a strategy. That is where the whole process seems to me to be falling down now. Can we make sense of that? In a sense, it is a question of the methodology of the development thinkers and activists. Can they think out a strategy that makes sense of that integrated holistic thinking? What are those alternative livelihoods?

I had the great privilege to travel across Afghanistan with a Member of the House of Lords, John Sentamu—the Archbishop of York, as he now is—who went across Afghanistan all the way to Herat. What I got from that trip was a strong sense of village and local community. We need viable, sustainable local communities that are economic communities. So that means, yes, providing economic development but also providing schools—I agree with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on that—and clinics and, indeed, mosques all together in a village, so that the villagers have some sense of longer-term development for themselves and their kids. Unless those seeds are sown, the conflict will go on and on.

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