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5.38 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): May I begin by apologising on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)? He would have liked to have been here, but unavoidably cannot be present.

The title of the debate is very broad. We welcome the debate, and the opportunity to raise a number of issues. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State had to say, and his identification of four key themes—governance, conflict prevention, trade and aid, and the absolutely important issue of climate change and its impact on Africa. Before I give some thoughts and commentary on that, I want to make the point that Africa is such a huge subject that it is impossible for any one speaker, or indeed any one debate, to deal adequately with all aspects of it. It is a continent, not a country. I was impressed to see that if the United States, China, India and all 27 European Union countries were all fitted into Africa, there would still be space left for Argentina and New Zealand. It is a huge continent, not a country.

Indeed, there are 50 countries in Africa, and I am not sure that some of them would want to have been dismissed as being the northern fringes, as they were by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) from the Conservative Front Bench. Africa is a continent of diverse cultures, languages, histories and stages of development. It is important that we do not make the mistake of thinking that there is one common problem facing Africa, and it would be extremely arrogant to suppose that there was one common solution.

I begin by celebrating some of the successes that there have been on the continent. The Secretary of State pointed out that there had been significant economic progress, and progress in tackling the millennium development goals. There has been significant progress on governance as well. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk name-checked a number of them. He mentioned South Africa, where the transition from a warped past to an exciting future has been dramatic, and surely beyond the imagination of those of us who saw it starting 25 years ago. It is now a significant regional power and a vibrant democracy, with which I hope the United Kingdom Government will continue to develop an active partnership in tackling some of the problems in other countries around the continent.

Turning to the subject of Ghana, I have in my constituency a close relative of former President Kufuor of Ghana. I was speaking to my constituent a week or two ago and expecting him to be suitably downcast at the defeat of his uncle and his political party in the elections in December, but he was quite cheerful. He said to me, “We are the only country in Africa with three presidents alive and well and living as free men in a free country.” He is proud of that transition and of what has happened, and is looking forward very positively to the future of that country’s governance.

But even in the most successful countries, there remain serious challenges—poverty, disease and the lack of access to basic services such as water and sanitation, health and education. In countries that do not have the benefit of good governance, where war and conflict are
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endemic or where governance is either notional or despotic, those problems can quickly become overwhelming. The attention of the House in this debate is, rightly, focusing on those areas.

Seventy per cent. of the population of Africa live on $1 a day or less—that is, 600 million people or more, 10 times the population of the United Kingdom. Ninety per cent. of the population of Africa, 850 million people, live on $2 a day. That is despite 7 per cent. economic growth in 2007, a growth performance that it is predicted will halve in the current financial year—and who can say that it will not be worse in the year beyond? Making Africa’s population secure and prosperous means tackling the very steep barriers to success.

High among those barriers is the impact of conflicts in states and between states. I shall not rehearse or name-check all that there are, but clearly the disputes in the great lakes region are extremely serious, and have cost millions of lives over the past decade. Darfur and the rest of Sudan is another area of great tension and difficulty, and Somalia, too, has been mentioned. In all those places there has been a failure of governance and a failure to control the outbreak of conflicts.

If conflict is a problem, so too is poor and despotic governance. Zimbabwe is close to the hearts of many Members, but we also have to remember Somalia and other places that get on to our radar less often. Despotic overpowering government is dangerous, and so is weak and ineffective governance.

That issue leads straight on to the health deficit, which has already been mentioned, and is one of the targets of the millennium development goals. HIV/AIDS affects more than 16 per cent. of the population of South Africa between the ages of 15 and 49; in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland the proportion is well over 20 per cent. In some ways, HIV/AIDS is the fashionable disease to talk about, but we also need to recognise that malaria is a major killer in Africa, particularly west and central Africa. Tackling those health deficits is clearly of the utmost priority in both the successful and the less successful nations of Africa.

Malcolm Bruce: Is my hon. Friend aware of the importance of bed nets for children in Africa to sleep under at night? The bed net reduces the bites inflicted on a child from an astonishing 4,000 to 40 per night, and it increases the chances of their surviving or avoiding malaria by a factor of about five. Are bed nets not one of the single best remedies for the problem?

Andrew Stunell: My right hon. Friend has a lot of experience in these matters and he is absolutely right. The sad thing is that the remedy of bed nets costs little compared with some of the high-cost drugs needed to tackle other diseases and plagues.

I turn quickly to the impact of climate change and soil exhaustion, which has not yet been mentioned in this debate. In the Sahel region and elsewhere, major problems are caused by climate change, over-cropping and overgrazing. Those problems will undoubtedly result in a reduction of the ability of the land to maintain and produce food for the populations of those areas. There are many other impacts across the whole continent. However, the new factor, which should surely be at the
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centre of the response from the Government and this country now, is the worldwide recession. The Secretary of State referred to the loss of markets and the decline in international prices for some of the agricultural and mineral products of the African continent.

However, there is also the drop, which has already started, in the support given by rich nations to development in Africa; the cut in aid announced by the Italian Government is perhaps the first and most obvious example. Furthermore, there is the parallel situation that we face in this country, given the declining value of the pound against both the dollar and the euro. Those factors lead to a reduction in African nations’ purchasing power for health and investment—a drop in Government income, and in the profitability of trade and industrial concerns in those countries leads to a drop in taxation income. The Secretary of State also rightly mentioned the loss of remittances.

There can be not only a two-way but a four-way hit for many of the African nations. Such issues present huge challenges to their leadership; continuing to provide security for the people and an environment that can deliver health, education and prosperity for all citizens is an almost impossible task. Those nations need help individually and collectively, and I ask the Government to give assurances about how the United Kingdom will work, both bilaterally—one-to-one with the different nations who need it—and multilaterally.

I also ask the Government to acknowledge the successes. Please let us not develop a series of policies that reward only failure in Africa; this issue is not all about emergency aid and peace initiatives, important though those are. Even in Ghana, there is drastic poverty, together with serious malaria infestations and an absence of sanitation and drainage in large parts of the country. These countries must not be forgotten in the rush to the emergency situations.

I want the Government to give an assurance that they will safeguard the United Kingdom’s aid contribution. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), will wind up the debate, because he was kind enough to answer a question that I asked in International Development questions, when he said very robustly that the Government intend to maintain their support. Can he explain how he will do that if the purchasing power of Britain’s aid budget is dropping by 30 per cent.? If the United Kingdom’s output dropped by 1.6 per cent. in the last quarter of last year, that means that 0.7 per cent. of GDP will be a smaller sum of money when we achieve that target. It would be somewhat ironic, when a new President in the United States is turning things round in US development policy and budgets, if European Union countries, particularly the United Kingdom, were to find that they were making a shrinking contribution. Have the Government, in bringing forward huge rescue packages to get the UK economy going again, given any consideration to top-slicing some of that—let us say by 0.7 per cent.—to facilitate such recovery in African and other developing nations?

I hope that the Minister can pick up on another point of great importance: capacity building in the African nations. Governance and the development of civic society have already been mentioned. I am sure that he will have heard, at least informally, from the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), who has regaled
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me with his view that what the countries of Africa need is more accountants. That is not the most obvious deficit that one would envisage, but in order to have good taxation policy and good financial control, good accountants are needed. Capacity building is about sending people not only to dig wells but to train others in the basic infrastructure of good governance.

Will the Government tackle the vulture funds? Many HIPCs—heavily indebted poor countries—find that their debt has been forgiven as a result of Gleneagles and other initiatives but that their inward investment is still blocked because of the action of vulture funds in buying up the debt that they have left behind at a discounted rate and pursuing that through the courts. I believe that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) has a ten-minute Bill on the issue, but it would be good to hear from the Minister that he is looking hard at it and will consider introducing legislation to tackle it.

Then there is the question of how the United Kingdom will exercise its influence through the European Union in relation to the extended World Trade Organisation dialogue and resolving the issues of the Doha round. A key point is empowering the African Governments to be able to punch their weight and exercise their power in that negotiation when it comes and as it goes on. Having raised that with the Department for International Development, I was disappointed to hear about the miserly allocation made towards empowering African Governments. We had one person seconded to Geneva to assist the developing nations in advancing their case at the WTO. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a picture of a more robust and wholehearted response.

It is widely acknowledged that Africa will miss the millennium development goals that have been set. It will therefore be necessary to redouble the support for tackling the health deficit in HIV and AIDS, for instance. In the past two years, the South African Government have finally acknowledged what the risks and solutions could be as regards that scourge in South Africa. With the incoming Government in the United States, we have seen a change of heart there which means that there will be a more robust response. I would welcome a reaffirmation from the Minister that, just at the moment when those two important influences on tackling vigorously the problem of AIDS in Africa are coming round in the right direction, he will not be deflected by voices calling for a retreat from doing so.

On malaria, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) mentioned the value of nets—a very simple and practical solution. The need for sanitation and clean drinking water is clearly vital in many nations given the existence of other widespread diseases, particularly those which are water-borne. I want to hear the Minister say that he will not allow a focus on particular nations in Africa that face extraordinary problems divert him and the Government from continuing to support sanitation and drinking water programmes in some of the other African nations. We must not finish up with an aid programme that rewards the failures.

Several comments have been made about peacekeeping. I very much welcome what the Secretary of State said about the UK’s intentions in that respect.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: The hon. Gentleman said that we must not reward failure. I am alarmed by that—what does he mean by it?

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Andrew Stunell: I thank the hon. Lady; it is helpful to have the opportunity to explain what I mean. It is absolutely right that we should continue to give a high priority to emergency aid and to peacekeeping initiatives and operations, and I hope that I have already said so. However, I also want it to be recognised that in a country such as Ghana, the level of poverty, the shortage of clean drinking water and the shortage of sanitation are as acute as they are in some of the headline nations where aid is focused. Looking across the whole of Africa, it is absolutely right, if we want the millennium development goals to be reached, that we do not just pick up on the headline countries and forget those that are not on the radar of our newspaper front pages.

I want to turn to the peacekeeping initiatives and the matters mentioned by the Secretary of State in that regard. It is absolutely right that we should offer training and support, and that we should be paying our subscriptions and seeing that that money is put to good use in ensuring that peacekeeping forces are effective and fully staffed. He will know that those forces are undermanned and underperforming in the DRC and in Darfur. I am sure that he would want to say that other nations need to understand the importance of supporting such operations, but I would like to believe that the UK will extend the help and support that it is giving to those operations, ensuring that everything is done to make them effective. We can all think of plenty of places where further peacekeeping efforts might be needed and larger forces might be appropriate, but if we cannot even staff and make effective the ones that we have now, we will not have the opportunity to do any of these things in an imaginative way.

I want to hear that the Minister and the Government as a whole take arms control and arms sales seriously. I hope that they were as dismayed as I was to hear about the huge success of the IDEX arms export fair in Abu Dhabi, bearing in mind that that is where many of the arms used in the conflicts that we have discussed are bought. Some 5 million people have been killed in the great lakes region, and 1 million in Darfur—more people have been killed in Africa in the past decade than in the whole of world war two. It is essential that the Government put principle before profit and make sure that we are not putting highly explosive fuel on to any of those fires.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I am not certain, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will find, if he checks, that most of the arms with which he rightly says Africa is awash come from eastern Europe and Ukraine.

Andrew Stunell: Yes, I fear that the hon. Gentleman is right. I hope that, among other things, the United Kingdom will operate through the international community to bring some international control to the wholesale and retail of such arms.

Over the past decade, the doctrine of the right to protect has been increasingly acknowledged internationally, and I hope that the Government will work harder to get that doctrine codified and accepted, alongside the regional powers in Africa—I mentioned South Africa, but Nigeria is an important player. Perhaps, as was recently implied by the report of the Select Committee on International Development, we need to work with China, although such work will require a good deal of care and a framework for such an approach.

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Africa is not a disaster, it is not a failure and it is not a lost cause, but it requires help and investment, good governance, healthy trade and well-targeted aid to provide for its many diverse communities and nations. I hope that the Government will play a strong, positive role in achieving that in the next decade.

6.2 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I apologise for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches; I have an engagement which I regret to say I cannot get out of.

I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said, especially about the need to build strong institutions in Africa. On the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) about the tension that might exist between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I was a Minister in both Departments, and although there was a little bit of tension occasionally during my time, by and large we worked extremely well together and always pulled in the same direction. I doubt that that has changed all that much. When I was the Minister responsible for Africa at the Foreign Office, I enjoyed a good relationship with the then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn).

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) is right to remind us to bear in mind that Africa is not one country, but 50 countries, that it is an extremely diverse continent and that we should beware of generalisations, although there are certain issues common to many parts of the country, which he touched upon. When talking about Africa, there is a danger of giving the impression that we can sort out all of its problems. We cannot; it is a matter for Africans, by and large. We can help, but it is for Africans to take the lead and for us to help. We can help only those who want to be helped and who demonstrate by their actions that they care about the welfare of their people. We must, of course, avoid hectoring, lecturing and patronising, which only rubs Africans up the wrong way. Nevertheless, we should not appease the unappeasable or make excuses for behaviour by corrupt elites that would not be acceptable in any other part of the world. There is a balance to be struck. We do not always get it right, but we must try.

If I learned one thing during the two happy years in which I was Minister with responsibility for Africa at the Foreign Office, it was that there is no shortage of decent, capable African leaders who care about their continent and the condition of their fellow citizens. Some of the most respected public figures on the planet are Africans, such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu. Our task is to encourage the good and discourage the bad, but we cannot do the job for Africans: it is for them to take the lead.

Several speakers have touched on the issues already, and they can be simply set out. In the short term, as the Foreign Secretary and others have said, we need to do what we can to help the poorest countries—many of which are in Africa—to get through the current world economic crisis, which is likely to hit them much harder than many of us. We must ensure that that issue is considered at the forthcoming G20 summit.

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