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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 November 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Primary Education

1. Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What assessment he has made of progress towards achieving universal primary education by 2015. [233021]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The global primary net enrolment ratio increased from 84 per cent. in 1999 to 89 per cent. in 2006. However, the latest estimates show that 75 million primary-aged children worldwide—41 million of them girls—are still not enrolled in school, and further progress is needed to achieve the target of universal primary education by 2015. We are working with the international community to accelerate action towards meeting that millennium development goal.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Can he confirm that Department for International Development staff are implementing the education beyond borders policy changes and ensuring that education is core to any humanitarian responses? With particular reference to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and notwithstanding the large sum allocated last year towards education, will there be extra funding for education as part of the UK’s humanitarian relief programme for that region?

Mr. Alexander: I can confirm that the 2007 DFID initiative, education beyond borders, is being implemented. In relation to the DRC in particular, more than £10 million of £55 million to be provided over a five-year period goes towards access to primary education. We continue to assess the growing humanitarian difficulties afflicting the troubled area of the DRC. We made an immediate announcement of an additional £5 million at the weekend. I have had discussions with the Foreign Secretary since his arrival in the DRC. We continue, of course, to talk to our teams on the ground in the DRC to assess what further assistance is required.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be confident that many African countries in particular are working hard to meet their millennium development goal commitments on education. Recently I have been working in Tanzania with people on education, and I should say that it is also important
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that we pay attention to the quality of the education experience in such countries as well as to the numbers receiving it. Tanzania is doing a great job in increasing the numbers of its children in primary education, but can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government are also working with that country to improve the quality of the education through better teacher training and teacher support?

Mr. Alexander: I am happy to give that commitment to my right hon. Friend. Like her, I have visited schools in Tanzania and I have seen for myself the tangible difference being made by extending access to primary education for the young people of that country. Enrolment in Tanzania has doubled. Now, 98 per cent. of children there go to primary school; the figure used to be 60 per cent. My right hon. Friend is right, however, to recognise that there should be no contradiction between issues of quantity and quality. We are looking at the issue of retention; in Dar es Salaam I spoke with President Kikwete on exactly those challenges. I assure my right hon. Friend that it is one of the issues on which we are working in Tanzania.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Secretary of State rightly identified the need for equality of opportunity for both sexes in education, and he will know of the tremendous improvements that there have been in Afghanistan. However, such opportunities are not available in other fundamentalist Muslim states. What is the Department doing to encourage those states to provide equal opportunity in respect of education for girls and young women?

Mr. Alexander: The focus of our work at the Department for International Development is not dictated by the majority religious views of any one country but the requirements of the country for support in tackling poverty. We are working with Governments in a number of different countries; the hon. Gentleman mentioned Afghanistan, and we have contributed about £60 million to the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund specifically for education. Where we are working we are in regular dialogue with Governments about improving the lot and opportunity of young girls in particular. To take one example, today about one in six of young girls around the world not in education are in northern Nigeria. That is why we are engaged in dialogue with the Nigerian authorities to see how we can extend opportunities to young girls and the disabled. It is necessary to get them into education if we are to see the progress that we want on the millennium development goals.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): In townships, there is sometimes no electricity and no water, but there are always mobile phones. BlackBerry, Nokia and Vodafone have substantial educational trusts. Will the Secretary of State consider convening a meeting of mobile phone operators? Using mobile phones for content could be a way of increasing primary education.

Mr. Alexander: I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully aware of the potential of what is widely seen in Africa as a leapfrog technology. Many countries that did not have fixed land-line telephone systems now have a number of mobile operators. Recently I discussed the
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potential of mobile telephony with Mo Ibrahim, who deserves huge credit for having expanded opportunity and built a hugely successful business in Celtel in recent years.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Will the Minister comment on the opportunity cost to the goal of universal primary education of the Government’s generosity to small-scale projects in emerging super-economies? Does he agree that that money might be better focused on areas of the world that are not blessed with natural resources or emerging super-economies of the sort that we see in China or, indeed, even in India?

Mr. Alexander: China continues to be afflicted by considerable challenges in poverty reduction, notwithstanding the welcome growth of its economy in recent years. That is why we continue to work in China, although we are due to close our bilateral programme shortly. We are continuing to work there partly because any serious assessment of the role of China in Africa recognises that now is exactly the time to try to exert influence over the Chinese authorities to ensure that their engagement with the continent of Africa in providing infrastructure and new opportunities is benign in the years ahead.


2. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps his Department takes to ensure its aid is used efficiently and effectively to combat poverty in developing countries. [233022]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): The Government are committed to ensuring that UK aid is used effectively to make a difference to the poorest in the world. DFID has strong processes and systems that ensure that aid is allocated to the countries where it will have the greatest impact and used efficiently and effectively to reduce poverty.

John Robertson: I thank the Minister for that answer. As chair of the all-party group on Nigeria, I have visited the country on several occasions and will do so again next month. The best work that I have seen DFID do is when it takes a hands-on approach to a project and ensures that it is involved throughout. Can he assure me, and does he agree, that the norm with DFID projects should be that it adopts such a hands-on role and ensures that taxpayers’ money is well spent?

Mr. Lewis: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his interest in the considerable progress that is being made in Nigeria. It is important that we adopt different approaches depending on the circumstances in the countries in which we are working. In some countries it is appropriate to work in partnership with Government through budget support, in others we should work with non-governmental organisations that are best placed to make a difference, and in some circumstances it is better to manage projects directly and then use the lessons from those projects to ensure that the populations of those countries can ultimately assume responsibility for building on that progress.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister will know that a very high percentage of the population of Zimbabwe is starving as a result of the activities of ex-President Mugabe. What assurance can he give me that the aid that we are giving to that country, and rightly so, is getting through to the people who need it and is not being used by Mr. Mugabe and his henchmen for political purposes?

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that unites Members on both sides of the House. The aid that we give to Zimbabwe goes directly through the United Nations and does not go through any governmental organisations within Zimbabwe. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the head of our Zimbabwe office only last week, and those assurances were reaffirmed. Let us send a very strong message from this House today that we expect Mugabe to honour the commitments that were made in the agreement on a political settlement. Until that happens, the people of Zimbabwe are suffering as a consequence of Mugabe’s failure to honour those commitments.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one issue to consider is that most countries monitor their own aid programme in parallel with those of other countries? Will he and his colleagues work with our partners in the European Union, and with the welcome new US Administration, to try to co-operate in order to maximise the amount of aid that is given on the front line and not waste it in duplication?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is important to note the progress that has been made. DFID has met seven of the 10 international targets on aid effectiveness agreed in the Paris declaration—that is three years ahead of schedule. The strong UK leadership from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the Accra agenda for action has been welcomed in terms of ensuring that the maximum amount of resources is spent on the front line to help the poorest people of the world. It is absolutely crucial that we ensure that the Accra agenda for action is implemented.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the Minister’s Department have a role in assisting prosecutions in developing countries when it is discovered that aid has been diverted?

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Of course, there are clear international standards and transparency in terms of what we expect to be the consequences for those who are found to misuse our aid. It is not necessarily for us to dictate how the criminal justice systems in those countries operate and how they bring people to justice, but the principle of accountability and responsibility is non-negotiable, and wherever corruption is discovered we expect the toughest conceivable action to be taken.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): One of the things that most disrupts the effective disbursal of aid is conflict. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the additional support being given in the DRC; could the Under-Secretary say a bit more about what we are doing to ensure effective humanitarian aid access in that part of the world?

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Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is probably aware that we recently announced an additional £5 million in aid for humanitarian support to the DRC. That takes our contribution to £42.8 million. We have specifically focused on the north Kivu area, and some of the funds will be used to fly in essential items at the request of UNICEF, whose stocks are low. We still await further details on the situation before we consider the next stage of our assistance.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the steps the Minister is taking include contacting President-elect Obama to see whether projects can be developed with the incoming American Administration to address poverty in Kenya?

Mr. Lewis: I am very optimistic that President-elect Obama will find a slot in his diary for me in the next few days—[ Laughter.] I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be delighted about that.

I am sure that all in the House would want to acknowledge what a momentous and historic event occurred in the United States of America yesterday. We send President-elect Obama our best wishes, and we believe that he will be a positive and progressive partner in tackling poverty in all parts of the world. It is one of the most encouraging things that has happened, politically, in my lifetime and it gives us all hope that the USA will make a tremendously positive contribution to tackling some of the world’s most serious problems.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): It is welcome that aid in the past 20 years has focused on health and education, but that was at the expense of agriculture, and this year already an additional 100 million people in the developing world have been pushed into poverty. What adaptation is the Under-Secretary making to the overseas development programme, particularly on the issue of water security, which will undoubtedly be the prime security issue in the 21st century?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Agriculture is absolutely essential, as is water security. In that connection, we have recently announced £400 million of additional investment in research. There was a period when the world deprioritised the importance of agriculture, but we will make our contribution, and we recognise that agriculture is an important part of the opportunities available to the developing world to progress.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I welcome the Under-Secretary and his fellow Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), to their new responsibilities in the Department. We wish them all the best for the future.

Building on the Minister’s comment about President-elect Obama, we now have the prospect of a new form of leadership in the United States. With regard to the partnership that the hon. Gentleman talked about, does he agree that one of the early priorities must be to ensure that aid levels are maintained? In the course of the current economic uncertainty, nobody in the world should scale down what they are offering. In that regard, does he agree that persuading the US to adopt a timetable to reach the UN aid target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income must be an early priority?

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Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that the 0.7 per cent. target remains the UK’s aim. We also believe that the world’s current economic difficulties reinforce the interdependency of our world. Rather than being seen as a threat to development investment, we should use those difficulties as an opportunity to explain to our populations and to all the donor countries why supporting the developing world in an economically difficult period is even more important.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): As my hon. Friend knows, the most effective way in which to tackle poverty is through good governance and capacity locally, especially when women are involved in local projects. Will he assure me that DFID programmes will always address those long-term issues, despite the short-term need to tackle immediate problems, such as those in the DRC? Maintaining such projects in the long run is the most effective way in which to effect genuine change and make a difference to people in the poorest countries in the world.

Mr. Lewis: I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. It is important that change is sustainable and long term. We achieve that only by building up the authorities, the administration and the governance arrangements in those countries, and supporting all sections of society to fulfil their potential and ensure that their talent is deployed for the benefit of their country. There is no doubt that many women in those countries could play a much greater leadership role at village, community and political level. A major part of DFID policy is ensuring that we tackle gender inequality, which continues to hold back too much of the developing world.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): On this great day for change, we, too, welcome the Under-Secretary to his new responsibilities. We also welcome the additional humanitarian aid for the Congo, which DFID announced at the weekend.

I hope that the Minister has read with concern the report by the respected National Audit Office, which found that a large percentage of development projects in conflict zones suffer from fraud or problems with financial accountability. What do he and the Department plan to do to tackle that?

Mr. Lewis: First, let me say that I suspect that last night marked the death of the illusion of compassionate conservatism. It was always an illusion.

The serious response to the question is that we have always made it clear, and have been complimented on that by the National Audit Office, that maximum transparency and accountability are at the core of not only the way in which we go about our business in the Department, but the leadership that we provide in international institutions. My right hon. Friend’s contribution at Accra meant that, from a weak starting point, we have a robust commitment to ensuring maximum value for money and best governance practice.

Mr. Mitchell: Given that response, why does the Under-Secretary not announce today that he will implement in full the Conservative party’s proposal to set up an independent aid evaluation agency in London? Would not that give taxpayers confidence that their aid money was being spent efficiently and effectively?

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Mr. Lewis: The 2006 OECD Development Assistance Committee peer review of the United Kingdom states:

The Canadian International Development Agency stated:

The hon. Gentleman should congratulate one of the UK’s greatest success stories.

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