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At the beginning of the debate, my very good friend the Minister tried to probe my Front-Bench colleague by asking about the future structure of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. He was trying to find out something that might give him a thread of comfort as he and his party head towards an election. I remember doing something similar in 1996-97: we tried to probe the Labour party to find out about some procedural issue that we believed we could then fling to the public and which would act as some sort of lifeline to us. It was like holding up an umbrella in a volcano; it does not work. It does not matter what the Minister thinks will be the structure of Departments under a future Conservative Government. When a Government start to worry about what an incoming Government of a different political party are going to do and start to talk about it, that betrays a certain lack of confidence, and I worry that the Minister
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might have fallen into that trap in his earlier questioning of us. In any case, he did not get the response he might have been hoping for.

I shall now turn to the meat of my remarks, and I shall be brief. I, too, wanted to make the point that in speaking about Africa we all too often concentrate on problems, rather than on the good things that are happening. We have all had great experience in Africa of things that go well and of the tremendous excitement of being in different places. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey and I were in South Africa in some awful times, and we went back to South Africa after the transition and change. We had stood together as the Caspers cruised up and down a road in Crossroads just after a camp had been evicted, and some years later, in 1999, I went back as an election observer and saw the tremendous difference in the country.

I had the good fortune to go to Rwanda with my party a couple of years ago to see the change taking place in that country, and we will be going back again this year. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made reference to the great work done by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I would also like to pay tribute to that organisation and to the work that the political parties do through it. I simply say that the Conservative Women’s Organisation has recently visited Uganda and has worked with the opposition parties there. The selfless work that our political parties do abroad, working with those who are fighting to create fledgling democracies and to make sure they have strong foundations, is rather unsung. That work, which is done by politicians and the WFD, has much to commend it. Almost all of us have taken part in it in some way and we should celebrate that.

I recognise that a couple more hon. Members wish to speak, but the particular point that I wish to make to the Minister briefly relates to the work of aid agencies—my point is supported by comments made thus far—and I am thinking, in particular, of the work of faith-based aid organisations, especially Christian ones. My reason for doing so is that from time to time there is a struggle in this country involving those who fear that Christian-based organisations are too powerful and have too many privileges and those who believe that an increasing secularisation would be of benefit and who seek to squeeze out the influence of faith organisations. Whatever the circumstances in this country, and whatever debates we may have about the influence of faith and about rising secularism, in Africa faith is really important—in many places the Christian faith is very powerful and the work of the Church is crucial.

I wish to discuss two or three aid agencies in particular, but first I should like to comment on the scale of the Church’s work, because it is one of the few movements that is global and local. Through its larger organisational structures, it is robust enough to support national health services and its influence is such that it can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to lobby on issues such as climate change and debt relief, yet much of the work of the Church is hidden and undocumented. Outside communities where it has a presence, its work at the grass roots is almost invisible.

Tearfund has worked with and through evangelical Churches from across the denominations for 40 years, and it believes that the Church’s greatest potential lies
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in local congregations rooted in the local community and local structures. The local church is the poor—its members share in the suffering—and its work is exemplified in many ways: it does work on HIV/AIDS—we have mentioned that before and I shall say a little more about it later—it provides water and sanitation, bringing sanitation and hygiene to areas not reached by the state; it provides advocacy, because the Church is one of the few agencies able to disseminate information from the grass roots in countries such as Zimbabwe; and it does work on gender equity, because the local Churches’ deep roots in local culture mean that they are often uniquely placed to tackle discrimination.

May I mention two particular agencies? I went to see the work of Habitat for Humanity in Kenya and Tanzania some years ago. Habitat for Humanity is involved in building homes, and for over 30 years or so it has built some 53,000 homes in 28 countries for some 300,000 people, but it is about more than just the building of houses; the process that Habitat for Humanity goes through involves the local community and its work has moved on from the mere building and repair of houses to the consideration of tenancies in slums, the right of tenants to remain and the efforts of those in slums to get some sort of civic governance and civic recognition for what they do, thus giving them stronger rights. The work of an organisation such as Habitat for Humanity is so much more than just providing a roof over people’s heads; it is getting to the roots of poverty by tackling the injustice that has gone along with the absence of people’s rights to the very basic privileges that the rest of us take for granted. In a speech recently, Ian Walkden, the UK director of Habitat for Humanity, said:

The work of World Vision, which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and I saw when we were in Mozambique, was equally moving and effective. Some 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Some 2 million children are living with HIV worldwide, and almost 90 per cent. live in sub-Saharan Africa. The work that needs to be done to support those who have been orphaned through AIDS is critical. I ask the Minister to recognise the need to set out specific criteria for the support of those orphaned by AIDS and ensure that the message is clear. We also need to support national Governments to deliver comprehensive and integrated prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV, which is all too often not specifically set out in the targets that people need to reach. I urge the Minister to change that.

I understand from Tearfund that about a year ago DFID began to work on a strategy for working with faith-based and Christian organisations. How far has that work gone? I understand that a guidance note was in preparation for use by DFID staff on how to engage with faith groups. I would be grateful if the Minister
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could tell us how far that has got, with which groups the Department is involved, and when they will be able to see the guidance.

In closing, I wish to quote Archbishop John Sentamu, who said:

I ask the House to recognise the immense work done by people of faith in Africa, to support them, and to ensure that as many as possible are brought to the table when development proposals are being discussed, so that they feel an integral part of the development needs of the countries in which they serve so selflessly.

9.23 pm

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): We have heard some excellent contributions tonight from Members on both sides of the House. Time is not on my side, so I shall concentrate on one issue—the complete lack of progress in many African countries towards achieving the fifth millennium development goal on maternal health.

Across the world, on average one woman a minute dies in childbirth. The total of that awful statistic is 500,000 women every year. Indeed, that is probably an under-estimate, because in many countries no accurate figures are kept. Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality, 19 are in sub-Saharan Africa. MDG5 has two targets. The first is to reduce by three quarters, by 2015, the number of maternal deaths. The second is to provide universal access to reproductive health services. So little progress has been made in so many African countries in the last two decades that the situation is getting worse in some countries.

A couple of Members have highlighted Sierra Leone tonight. That country has the worst record for maternal mortality. In Sierra Leone, one in six women—a staggering statistic—is at risk of death during pregnancy or in childbirth. In northern Europe, the figure is one in 30,000. We have to consider the wider context. Such a death is not just a human tragedy for the woman and the children in her family. It has economic consequences.

In Africa, two thirds of the transport is done by women, not by trucks or planes. Women carry goods from A to B. It is mainly women who tend the crops and provide 80 per cent. of the food. Women are the breadwinners in a third of all households in sub-Saharan Africa. My message is that Africa cannot afford to lose 500,000 capable hands every year.

Why is that happening? I can quickly give four reasons. First, there is a lack of trained health care assistants. One in four women in Africa give birth having never seen a health professional at any point during their pregnancy. Secondly, across Africa women have no access to family planning services or safe abortions. Complications from unsafe abortions kill 14 per cent. of women who die. The next contributory factor, which has been mentioned tonight, is the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in many developing countries. A third of women in those countries are infected with HIV and, of course, women who are infected with HIV are five times more
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likely to die in childbirth. Last, but certainly not least, is the low status of women in many African countries and, I must say, the abject failure of the Governments to give any priority to women’s rights and to improving women’s access to free and affordable antenatal care.

As other Members have mentioned, as well as a lack of political will in developing countries there has been a lack of political commitment to making progress on MDG5 in the international community. I pay tribute to our Government, our country and DFID. We have given at least £50 million towards maternal health programmes.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is no longer in his seat, has just mentioned the key role of British NGOs. They, too, have led the way. Save the Children, Oxfam and this year’s Comic Relief all need to be congratulated. They have all brought the need for better and safer motherhood programmes into the public arena.

What more can we do? First, many of the countries with the highest maternal mortality are in the Commonwealth. I see the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has returned to his seat, and those of us who are on the CPA executive should propose that the British branch should organise and host a high-level seminar on the subject of the lack of progress on MDG5.

Secondly, there is still more that we can do to assist the training of health professionals—certainly midwives—in Africa. We give our academics a sabbatical year, so why do we not at least consider giving a sabbatical year to our NHS staff—or to those who are able to take one—so that they can go to Africa and pass on their skills and expertise?

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Lady is making an attractive proposition. I wonder whether she is aware that it is a requirement of medical training in Switzerland that a year is spent overseas on exactly that kind of project.

Christine Russell: That sounds like a splendid idea, and I will certainly point the Secretary of State for Health in that direction. My second suggestion would offer a very good way for us to transfer skills and knowledge to the developing world.

My final point is that the UN can and certainly should do more to co-ordinate international efforts. There is far too much fragmentation among the UN agencies, and they need a much clearer focus on improving maternal health. I have been sitting here doing some sums during the debate. It commenced at 4.15 pm, and by the time that it concludes in 30 minutes’ time, 400 more women will have endured an agonising death in childbirth somewhere in Africa. That must not go on in the 21st century. As the leaders of the G20 are meeting in London, perhaps as well as considering and taking forward a concerted plan of action to tackle the global financial crisis, they should agree a concerted plan of action to make progress towards the achievement of millennium development goal No. 5.

9.31 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be very brief, to give the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) at least a few minutes to say something. I heard the speech on Darfur made by
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my friend, in this respect, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). I intend not to cover the same ground, but to talk about Sudan for three or four minutes, because Darfur is not the totality of Sudan.

This is an absolutely key year in the great country of Sudan, which has the largest land mass and the sixth largest population in Africa. Later this year, in July, elections are supposed to start that will lead to the referendum on whether the north and the south finally split in 2011. It is vital that those elections take place according to a proper timetable, and that we in the UK and the west give sufficient support to ensure that they take place and are properly monitored, so that we can get the best possible result—an outcome that is fair and proper.

The country has a number of difficulties at the moment. We have heard about Darfur from a number of hon. Members; but of course, tensions exist between the north and the south. Much of that tension is to do with the failing price of oil, which brings with it much peril to Sudan’s population, because people have become dependent on that money. I should like to say that we in the west have a proud record in being willing and able to provide foreign aid to support those oil moneys. I exonerate the Government of this country, but too often, sadly, the promises that have been made—in Oslo, for example—have not been delivered, and Sudan has therefore failed to have sufficient resources to do what it needs to do to bring some stability and peace to that bedevilled country.

My plea, which goes via the DFID Minister and to the Foreign Office, is that we do what the people of Sudan always ask us to do—not to lose sight of them, given all the other great tragedies of the world. As the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) so clearly laid out before us, Zimbabwe brings its own tensions to Africa and the wider world, but when we go to Sudan, we are always requested to remember that, too often, it slips down the agenda. This is the year more than any other when our eyes and—dare I say?—our budgets should be concentrated on ensuring that that country, which has had so many problems not least in Darfur, has a chance to move forward after so many years of conflict. I for one will hold the Government to account, and I hope that other parliamentarians will do likewise, to ensure that we play our part and that the great country of Sudan can do what is needed with the elections, and subsequently the referendum.

9.35 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): It is a privilege to take part briefly in this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christine Russell), and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for making shorter speeches than they might have done, to allow everyone who wanted to say a word, including me, to do so.

I apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), for not having been here at the outset of the debate, but I had commitments outside the House, one of which was directly relevant to the debate. I was at a memorial service in St. Mary le Strand for someone whom I have known since we were both teenagers, Kari Blackburn Boto. After a great university career,
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Kari went on to become the head of the BBC World Service’s Swahili service and of its Africa service, and was in charge of Africa and middle eastern services for the BBC. She died tragically, and in a very untimely way. The many people gathered with her family today were there to pay tribute to Kari, and to what the BBC World Service has done for Africa over the lifetime of all of us in the Chamber.

Kari, a white British woman who married a Ugandan, had a fantastic mixed-race family, including an adopted Ugandan son. She stood for developing the role of women in journalism in difficult communities, such as in the Muslim communities of Africa, and encouraging them to take leadership positions. The reputation of independent and impartial broadcasting played a hugely important part in the development of democracy, the understanding of the need for education, and the political processes of Africa. It was a timely coincidence that this debate was held on the same day as the service. Today would have been her 55th birthday. One of her sons was in the Gallery earlier, listening to this debate.

People such as Kari understand that Africa is a hugely complex and varied continent. I think that my borough has more African constituents than any other in Britain; my colleagues the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) and I have dealings with huge numbers of people from west Africa—Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana. I pay tribute to those people for the contribution that they make in this country, but also for the way in which, as we have heard, they send remittances back. They become engaged in the issues, and go back and work for democratisation. Those from Sierra Leone, a community that has suffered so much, have tried to give back a huge amount.

I make a plea to the Government on behalf of people in this country who are of African descent, including people from Zimbabwe, who have been referred to by Members on both sides of the House. When people come here from Africa, particularly from Commonwealth countries, with which we have so much common heritage, we should understand our obligation to look after them well. We should give them the opportunity to work while they cannot go home, so that they can contribute to the country from which they have come while they are kept away from it.

There are many charities—my friend the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) referred to many of them—that do wonderful work in a collaborative way, in which people from Africa and people from this country work together. They include small charities such as XLP, which set up a secondary school in northern Ghana, and large charities such as WaterAid, which does such wonderful work in making sure that the risks resulting from environmental changes do not take an even more severe toll.

There are many other issues to think about after having heard such excellent contributions, but I end with two very simple points. Elections are coming up in South Africa; they will take place in just a few weeks’ time. It is really important for the new Administration in South Africa to rise to the challenge of its continental responsibilities. It is important for it to carry on raising awareness, through the enlightened policy that it has recently adopted for dealing with HIV/AIDS. That
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must be continued, not the benighted policy that it had before. It must work really hard to curb the violence and lawlessness that can so undermine the spending that needs to take place on utilities, housing and education.

Finally, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) generously mentioned that he and I had attended the UK launch of the network of parliamentarians across the world whose aim is to support others in conflict prevention and human security. As we meet on the eve of the G20, I hope that the Ministers on the Front Bench, our Prime Minister and the other leaders will pay heed to the communiqué issued at the end of that launch conference, which made it clear—for the great lakes region, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and others it is central—that conflict prevention saves money as well as saving lives, and that the ratio of £2,000 on defence budgets compared with £1 on conflict prevention budgets needs to be changed. I hope that we shall see a new priority for Africa, not only in Africa but also in the policies of the Government at home.

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