Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1013

The United Kingdom launched the international aid transparency initiative at the high-level forum on aid effectiveness in Accra in September this year. We did so, I am glad to say, with the support of 13 major donors, including the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the European Commission and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The initiative commits donors to publishing more detailed and up-to-date information about aid flows, to giving details and costs of individual projects and their aims, to providing more reliable information about intended future aid, and to agreeing common standards for publishing that information so that it is accessible to everyone.

The initiative is an important first step towards increasing certainty for both donors and the countries receiving aid, and has been warmly welcomed as such by developing countries and civil society, including by Transparency International and the Publish What You Fund campaign—a coalition including ActionAid and the UK Aid Network. I expect the initiative to be joined by growing numbers of international donors during its design phase, which is under way, and I expect it to be in place by the end of next year.

In addition to launching the international aid transparency initiative, the United Kingdom played a leading role at the Accra meetings to secure an international agenda for action to improve the quality of global aid. Supported by the outstanding team of civil servants from DFID, I was able to work with my counterparts from across the European Union frankly to raise the level of ambition for the meeting, and to persuade all donors and developing countries to sign up to concrete, time-bound, ambitious agreements to improve the way aid is provided. I would like to inform the House of some of the successes of the meeting, including agreements on mutual accountability, donor co-ordination and predictability of financing.

The first area of agreement regards mutual accountability between donors and recipient countries. Donors have a legitimate right to monitor the performance of developing country Governments to ensure that aid is well spent—a responsibility that this Government take seriously. We know that aid is more effective when recipient countries in turn monitor donor performance. In Mozambique, for example, independent reviews of both donor and Government performance have helped to improve the predictability of aid and reduce the costs for all parties involved. The House may be interested to learn that such rankings have rated DFID as the most effective donor for the past three years. In Accra, both donors and recipient Governments agreed to develop stronger mechanisms to hold each other accountable for meeting commitments, so that the good practice that I described in Mozambique is in future the rule, not the exception, in international aid.

The donors gathered in Accra made a commitment to improving the co-ordination of aid. Developing country Governments spend far too much time managing donors, and are left with too little time to conduct the proper business of government as they take their countries forward on their development paths. Over the past four years, Government staff in Uganda have dealt with more than 1,000 donor-led projects. In one year alone, the Government of Vietnam played host to 791 donor missions—more than three for every working day. Government staff in Mozambique have to maintain 1,000 different
13 Nov 2008 : Column 1014
bank accounts simply to meet differing donor requirements. It was because of such concerns that this Government last year launched the international health partnership to improve donor co-ordination in the health sector. The agreements made in Accra take that approach beyond the health sector. Developing countries committed to taking the lead in co-ordinating and agreeing an effective division of labour between donors. In turn, donors agreed to respect those priorities and work together to put better co-ordination into practice.

In developing countries where aid funding can be equivalent to as much as 75 per cent. of the national budget, it is vital that donors provide as much clarity as possible regarding intended future aid flows. Our Government are taking part in 10-year agreements in the education sector; as part of that, developing countries provide robust, costed 10-year plans. We have already made such agreements in a number of countries, including Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda. By doing so, we are giving those countries the confidence that they need to build a school; they know that the money will be there to maintain it, and can train teachers knowing that they can afford to pay a salary at the end of that training.

In Accra, donors agreed to provide regular and timely information on the aid that they expect to provide in the next three to five years. Donors also agreed to increase the share of aid channelled through to partner country budgets. Those measures will help developing countries to plan and manage their budgets better, to use resources more effectively and to provide the services that their citizens need.

The successful conclusion to the meeting of donors and developing countries in Accra provided a positive precursor to the high-level event on the millennium development goals held later in September at the United Nations in New York. That meeting brought together literally the broadest alliance ever assembled to fight for a common goal to tackle global poverty. The UN Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly were joined by 140 countries, alongside dozens of multinational chief executives, faith leaders and non-governmental organisations. The commitments made included a malaria action plan, launched to point the way towards universal coverage of insecticide-treated bed nets by 2010, and achieving near-zero malaria deaths by 2015. Those gathered made commitments to provide emergency food aid in the horn of Africa, and the rapid distribution of support, including seeds and fertilisers for 30 priority countries in time for the next planting season. A major new financing force was launched with the aim of raising funds to help recruit 1 million health workers and save 10 million lives. To get 25 million more children into school by 2010, as a milestone to universal primary education by 2015, international partners launched a “Class of 2015” partnership. Those and other commitments combined to form $16 billion-worth of pledges to tackle poverty. In response, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the meeting

As I said at the outset, the coming weeks will, however, be crucial in determining the global response to the slowdown in the world economy. The G20 leaders meeting in Washington this weekend should send a clear and unequivocal signal to the international community of their continued commitment to international development. At the financing for development conference in Doha at
13 Nov 2008 : Column 1015
the end of this month, donors should agree that changes to international financial regulations will not harm the interests of the poorest countries. All parties should reaffirm the commitments on aid effectiveness made in Accra. Donors should agree to keep promises on aid, as the UK, I am glad to say, is doing, and they should reaffirm their commitment to maintaining open markets and resist the threat of protectionism.

I hope that I have given the House an assurance that the Government are committed to tackling global poverty at a time of global uncertainty. It is not only our moral duty to help our fellow men, women and children to lift themselves out of poverty but it is in our interest as a nation to do so. Government Members, at least, are united in that conviction.

The financial crisis and its effects have underscored the interdependence of nations at the beginning of the 21st century, and while recent events have shown every family across Britain to be connected to some of the richest people in the world so, too, are we connected to the world’s poorest people. In our response to dangerous climate change, the depletion of natural resources, the threat of global disease, and indeed the threats to our global security, there is quite simply no more “over there” and “over here”. Tackling those great problems requires a truly global mindset, and calls for global solutions, which means bringing the fifth of the global population who live in extreme poverty into our global community. The United Kingdom will therefore keep working to tackle disease, illiteracy and hunger. As I have set out, we will continue to lead international efforts to ensure that any aid delivered provides the benefits that the world’s poorest need, and that British taxpayers rightly demand.

3.23 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The year 2008 has been a distinctly mixed one for international development. We remain stubbornly off-track to meet the millennium development goals, and fuel prices and food shortages have left millions at risk. Natural disasters have hit, leaving destruction in their wake—floods in India, a cyclone in Burma, and an earthquake in Pakistan. Man-made emergencies in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan have brought insecurity and misery to many. Amid all that, the global financial crisis has thrown the whole developing world and the international aid industry into turmoil.

At the outset, I echo the Secretary of State’s opening words about now being a time of hardship when the poor suffer most, and his closing words about the importance, particularly now, of the rich world standing by its commitments. There is, however, some cause for hope. DFID’s reputation as an outstanding development agency continues, and we are all rightly proud of it. The Department has continued to fight poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries; it has accepted that poor sanitation is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths and launched a new policy for that sector; and, as the Secretary of State outlined, it has led international efforts to improve aid co-ordination, championing in Accra an agreement that serves as a booster to the three-year-old Paris declaration.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1016

I should like to reassert a point that I have made numerous times in the House and elsewhere, and which the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), made: most people want international development to be removed from the realm of party politics all together. International development policy is not Tory, or Labour, or Liberal, but British. But, of course, we on the Opposition Benches have a role to play in holding the Government to account on their international development work and policies, so we will support and encourage DFID when we believe that it is doing the right thing, but probe and ask questions of it when we think that there is room for improvement. We will also press the Government to do more in areas that we consider to be important. That should be the nature of a responsible Opposition’s approach to development, and it is certainly our approach on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: In the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, may I ask him to confirm that he therefore accepts that DFID, as a leading development agency, does not give any money with no strings attached? I am sure that he will be happy to offer that assurance to the House on the basis of his scrutiny of the Department’s annual report.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his intervention, and in my speech I will come precisely to the point to which he alludes. [ Interruption.] As I said, I shall answer the point in my own way, and he can wait, I hope, with patience.

Anne Snelgrove: The problem that Government Members have with the hon. Gentleman’s point about removing party politics from the international development debate is that during the Conservative party’s term in office, the money that was spent on aid halved as a proportion of GDP, and, if it had not been for the political and non-governmental organisations’ pressure on his party, it would have gone down even further. What is his comment on that?

Mr. Mitchell: My comment is that, first, the hon. Lady has seen and knows the Opposition’s commitments, and, secondly, she makes my point for me: people hearing that sort of intervention, having heard what I said about the importance of taking the issue out of party politics, will find it rather tiresome.

Daniel Kawczynski: We did not— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr. Kawczynski.

Daniel Kawczynski: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The Secretary of State did not mention once in his speech the European Union or the funding that it gives to international aid. Of course, our taxpayers’ money is increasingly spent by the European Union, and I had been hoping to hear from the Secretary of State a bit more about the transparency of EU spending in the third world. Does my hon. Friend share my concerns that the Secretary of State did not either do that or share with the House any further information about the transparency governing the EU’s spending of our money?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend will have noticed that the debate refers specifically to transparency. A transparent international aid policy is one that is accountable to its—

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1017

Mr. Alexander: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mitchell: I shall.

Mr. Alexander: It is just that in the spirit of co-operation of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken today, I had hoped that I might be able to assist him in answering the question from his own Back-Bencher, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). When I mentioned “European partners”, that was a reference to the European Union. I know that that is an alien concept to some on the Opposition Benches, but we believe that the members of the European Union—the other 26—are our partners. So, when I spoke of the partners, I was speaking about the European Union.

Mr. Mitchell: I do not wish to be unfair to the Secretary of State, but before he jumped in, I was just about to answer my hon. Friend by saying that a transparent international aid policy is one that is accountable to its investors, the British taxpayer, as well as to its end-users, the local people in developing countries. The policy must be efficient and effective, or face a critical response from those who have a stake in it. Most importantly, it must deliver.

We welcome the launch of the international aid transparency initiative. We Conservatives have repeatedly championed greater transparency in aid. We have consistently argued—not least as I did in my speech at the Conservative party conference the year before; as the Secretary of State is an enthusiast of my speeches, he will have noticed—that as well as championing effectiveness in aid spending, we must stand up for transparency. We will watch closely to ensure that the new international aid transparency initiative is fully implemented by the Department for International Development and the other agencies that have signed up to it.

The Secretary of State has no room for complacency on this issue. One of the initiative’s commitments is to

There is a great deal to be done to put flesh on the bones of that promise. The DFID website is a most important tool, but it is woefully light on information about DFID spending on development. When country profiles exist, they often lack up-to-date, systematic detail on what DFID money has been spent on and how. Many recipients of our aid do not even have a country profile on the website, and in many country programmes there is no obvious way for a member of the public in a developing country to find out in detail how DFID aid money is being spent there.

For example, the DFID website offers just a few paragraphs about how our £3 million aid budget is spent in The Gambia and contains no easily accessible detail about the six major sectors in which many millions of British pounds will be spent in that country in the next few years. I am not talking about complicated information, and it should not effectively be classified information.

There are good precedents for greater transparency. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria publishes on its website all its budgets and spending decisions in each of the countries where it works. Like its websites for other countries, its website
13 Nov 2008 : Column 1018
for The Gambia clearly explains who the local fund agent is, the exact amount of the approved grants down to the last dollar, the name of the principal recipient, the amount actually disbursed, a disbursement rating, and the dates on which the programme started and the money was disbursed. It also gives details of unsuccessful proposals.

Let no one be in any doubt about the importance of the DFID website. It is not only the vital means through which British people can find out how their money is being spent, but an essential reference point for journalists, civil society and ordinary citizens in developing countries. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to redesigning the DFID website, but will he reassure me that its content—and not only its appearance—will be comprehensively overhauled? Will he learn lessons from sites such as that of the global health fund and publish a detailed breakdown of spending to which everyone can have access?

I also have a query about changes in the figures published from one year to the next. The casual observer in London, Nairobi or Freetown would not necessarily spot them straight away, but the Conservative international development team is nothing if not sharp-eyed. In the Department’s report, the statistics show that no money was spent in Djibouti in 2006-07. When the new international development statistics were published in October, the figure was mysteriously changed to £4 million, apparently all for other bilateral aid. Similarly, the Madagascan bilateral programme rose by £14 million and the Ghanaian programme by £13 million; there are numerous other examples. In the winding up, will the Minister explain the reasons for those discrepancies and will a system for explaining them as they arise be established? A revamped website with comprehensive information will be seriously hindered if the statistics in it can be changed year on year without explanation.

Anne Snelgrove: Would the hon. Gentleman not be better advised to ensure that his sharp-eyed researchers are put to work on his party’s international development policy? I do not know whether he is embarrassed by the comments of the Overseas Development Institute’s Alan Hudson, who described the hon. Gentleman’s proposals on the ODI blog as “derivative” and just a rehash of the Government’s.

Mr. Mitchell: We can always swap these things across the Floor of the House. The hon. Lady will have seen that The Guardian, which is not always a supporter of the Conservative party, spoke in glowing terms of our policies on international development in a recent article.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party, in pursuing this initiative over the past two years—for example in Rwanda, where 120 MPs and volunteers went this year—is leading from the front in terms of showing people what we can do to help those in developing countries?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is right. There are many policy areas where Conservative Members have been leading, coaxing and encouraging the Government, with modest success in some cases.

Next Section Index Home Page