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9.40 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is an honour to wind up this timely and informative debate. There is a proverb from the Kanuri region of Nigeria: the pillar of the world is hope. If I had to sum up the mood of the debate in a single word, it would be one of hope.

As we have heard, Africa continues to face not just economic challenges, but others such as disease, conflict and corruption, all of which might divide the continent. However, despite these pressures, the one thing that continues to unite Africa, as I have been fortunate enough to see for myself over the past two years during visits there, is a genuine sense of hope for the future. Sadly, hope these days is not enough, so I am pleased that the one thing that has been underlined in today’s debate is the strong message from both sides of the House that there is a clear determination to do all we can to support Africa in finding an African solution to the many challenges that the continent continues to face.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) clearly outlined in a powerful opening speech the five principles that we on the Opposition Benches believe should underpin British policy in our efforts to support the continent. I shall start with a few words on our progress in achieving the millennium development goals mentioned by several speakers—the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who focused on the failure to achieve the MDGs in Sierra Leone, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who was rightly concerned about progress across Africa in achieving those goals, and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell), who highlighted her concern at the lack of progress in achieving MDG 5.

In signing up to the goals nine years ago, the UK made a commitment, as part of the international community, to

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In essence, we agreed that through those eight goals, we would work tirelessly to address the key issues holding back development in the world, particularly in Africa. The millennium development goals offer hope to many millions of people across the world. Although progress has been made, now that we have passed the halfway point in time, it is clear that much more needs to be done.

A few weeks ago the Secretary of State for International Development said that owing to the “financial tsunami” sweeping across the world, the achievement of the millennium development goals could be pushed back by three years. Two weeks ago I visited the International Monetary Fund in Washington, and the message there was equally clear—that despite overall progress towards the goals, it was likely that the world would still fail to meet its commitments, and that Africa, and in particular southern Africa, would fail to reach the MDGs by 2015.

To underline that, the 2008 Africa Progress Panel’s report gave a clear assessment of what still needs to be done when it said:

In addition, figures suggest that 12 out of the 13 countries with the highest maternal mortality ratio are in Africa, and that about 41 per cent. of Africans are still living on less than $1 a day.

It is evident that Africa is struggling, but why does it continue to struggle? Contributions from hon. Members highlighted some of the continent’s failings, but it is time we owned up to our own mistakes, learned from our failures and promised that in future we will live up to our commitments. That is why the Opposition support the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on international development by 2013. In his opening statement the Foreign Secretary referred to 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product, so I hope the Minister will clarify the point when he winds up.

The Government are always keen to trumpet how much they are spending, but we firmly believe that we should gauge success not only by input but by output, and we encourage the Government to be equally forthcoming about what has been achieved with the money spent. Clearly, the hon. Member for Crosby shares that view; she was frustrated at the failure of her parliamentary questions to get to the bottom of what has been achieved with the UK’s shares of funds given to the various multilateral organisations.

Of course, some of Africa’s countries have enjoyed greater success than others, and it would be unjust to suggest that all are failing. In a wide-ranging speech, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) highlighted many of the continent’s successes. Botswana’s governance and economic growth have been outstanding, for example. Furthermore, as was mentioned, Ghana recently held presidential elections and enjoyed a peaceful transition of power; as we have discovered, it is proud of the fact that it has three living ex-Presidents. There is also Rwanda, a country that I have got to know well. Despite its recent appalling past, it continues to progress under President Kagame. However, it is worrying that
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the stark assessment of the World Bank is that the very African countries that have made most progress by engaging with the developed world will be the first to feel the chill of the global economic downturn.

Many hon. Members raised cases of hope and issues of concern from across the continent during the debate. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is not in his place, gave an informed speech, reminiscing about his time as a Minister at the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; I sensed that it was the unwritten eighth chapter of his book, “A View from the Foothills”, which is available from all good bookshops. The hon. Gentleman made some interesting points about food security and the increasing role of China in Africa.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) gave a powerful speech focusing entirely on trade, and highlighted the challenges facing the G20 later this week. He warned of the dangers of protectionism and highlighted the problems of internal trade barriers in Africa and the fear that many poor African countries run the risk of falling behind their neighbours.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) spoke with great eloquence, focusing on concerns across the House about President Bashir’s expulsion of the aid agencies from Sudan, and the ongoing issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) spoke about the need for good governance and the devastating effect that a series of failed states has had on the development of progress on the continent. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) spoke with great experience and authority, as one would expect from the Chairman of the International Development Committee, about the Committee’s recent visit to Kenya and the encouraging signs that its members found for sustainable development—not least the low-carbon produce. He also spoke about the parliamentary reform being carried out in Tanzania; having been there for the presidential elections in 2005, I found that deeply encouraging.

Perhaps the greatest hope came from the two contributions about Zimbabwe. For 38 years my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has highlighted his concerns about the country. Although, like the political scene, the economic situation there remains bleak, it seems to be stabilising following the introduction of the US dollar. Prices of goods bought in US dollars have fallen by 3 per cent. since January. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the chairman of the all-party group on Zimbabwe, rightly paid tribute to our high commissioner and staff; I had the privilege of meeting the high commissioner during his previous tenure in Tanzania.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke with great authority about several southern African states, highlighting human rights abuses. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has been a strong and consistent voice in the House on the subject of Darfur. Reinforcing the message of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, he eloquently highlighted the humanitarian crisis that continues to engulf the region, and made the moral and practical case on why more must be done. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye
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(Michael Jabez Foster) focused on his constituency links with Sierra Leone; my constituency, too, has such links through its excellent organisation, the Olney-Newton Link.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) spoke from great experience and underlined the excellent work being carried out by many faith-based agencies such as World Vision, which happens to be based in my constituency. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) spoke with authority about Sudan. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to that country with him a couple of years ago.

I congratulate the Minister on the high percentage of DFID’s bilateral aid that is directed to Africa—although I hope that last year’s underspend on the continent will not be repeated this year, or, indeed, become the norm in these tough economic times.

I started on a positive note, and I would like to end on one. Africa’s poverty levels have dropped by 6 per cent. since 2000, and the Africa Progress Panel suggests that if we continue to build on the work that is being done, the percentage of Africans living in absolute poverty will have dropped from 46.7 per cent. in 1990 to 31.4 per cent. in 2015. Between 1999 and 2005, primary school enrolment across the continent has increased by 36 per cent. Africa has made progress, but we in the international community must do more.

We have had an excellent and historic debate—the first in this Chamber dedicated to Africa as a continent, and opened by a Foreign Secretary, for 17 years. At a time when the continent faces some of its greatest ever challenges, I am sure that the whole House will agree that we cannot allow another 17 years to pass before we debate Africa again.

9.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Ivan Lewis): This has been an excellent debate that has demonstrated the deep passion and knowledge about Africa in all parts of this House; in that respect, I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). The debate takes place against the background of a global recession that will affect the poorest most and undermine the remittances, markets and growth which together have fuelled much of the progress that many African countries have made in recent years.

Once again, the awesome dual responsibility of being both the conscience and leader of the international community in relation to the rights and needs of developing countries falls to Britain as we host the G20 in London this week. In 2005, at Gleneagles, Tony Blair and the then Chancellor persuaded world leaders that Make Poverty History, a mass movement for change, had to become the political mission of a 21st-century fair and prosperous world. Now, once again, it is our Prime Minister who is insisting that the voices of Africa and of the poor are heard by those around the top table in London at the G20. He invited African leaders and Finance Ministers to London a fortnight ago so that he could meet them face to face, hear first hand about the impact of the recession, and understand the decisions that are necessary to protect the poor and maintain the growth that is so essential not just to poverty reduction but to political credibility and social stability. It is he
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who urged the World Bank to create a vulnerability fund that will protect the poorest in the short term; he who will seek to ensure that IMF and World Bank reform reflect the needs of the developing world; and he who will seek agreement to ensure that we begin the process to complete Doha so that fair trade, not protectionism, is our response to the current economic crisis.

It is right that today and every day we reiterate our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on aid. As the Prime Minister has said, now is not the time to retreat from our commitment to achieving the millennium development goals. Now is the time for every developed country to step up to the mark, fulfil its responsibilities, and keep its promises on aid. We should do so because social justice is not just about the life chances of kids in London, Manchester and Birmingham —it is about the dreams and aspirations of the children I have met recently in a Kampala youth centre, in the refugee camps around Goma, and among the AIDS orphans of South Africa.

To believe in social justice in Britain is to believe in global social justice. But we should also learn from the economic shock of the past six months that global interdependency is not a question of ideology or of the future—it is today, here and now, a reality. A fairer world is not just some idealistic pipe dream—it is also about our self-interest. Our growth and our security are affected by the political, economic, social and security environment in Africa. We can win the war against climate change only if we work in partnership with Africa and the developing world. In these difficult times, we must demonstrate leadership in our dialogue with the British people, and alongside strengthening pride in our national identity and helping people and businesses through, explain why investing in Africa is ultimately good for Britain too.

We should be frank about both the achievements and the challenges. Africa, with our support, has made real progress, but there remain serious concerns: recent political developments in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Madagascar; appalling violence in places such as eastern DRC and Somalia; still too much corruption in countries where political and social elites steal resources for the few that are meant for the benefit of the many; and, for too long, denial in South Africa about the scale and nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has killed so many so unnecessarily.

I want to turn to the contributions made during the debate. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is clearly born to rule, and he has not been attending the modernisation conference that has been put on by the Leader of the Opposition in recent times. It is important that the hon. Gentleman makes it clear whether the Opposition would retain an independent Department for development, run by a Secretary of State, in the Cabinet. [Hon. Members: “He did!”] I do not believe that he cleared that up during the course of this debate. [ Interruption. ] I agree with the hon. Gentleman— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mr. Lewis: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of a joined-up approach in the horn of Africa. He also raised an important issue when he
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talked about the strength of MONUC forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although we should all welcome the change in the political dynamic that has led to Rwanda, DRC and Uganda working together politically and from a security point of view.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) raised the question of our commitment to health services and the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. We are making an unprecedented commitment of £1 billion to the global fund from 2008 to 2015, and we will make £6 billion available to fund the building of health systems, which are crucial if we are to have the front-line health services that people desperately need. The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of the recession on our commitments. The Prime Minister has made it clear that our commitments to the 0.7 per cent. figure for the developing world remain as strong as ever.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) raised the question of the situation in Darfur and Sudan, and their points were excellent and made passionately. The joint assessment of the humanitarian situation causes us great concern; now is the time for the international community to act. We call, of course, on the Government of Sudan to reverse their decision to expel the non-governmental organisations, which was totally unacceptable, and we stand firm in our commitment to support the comprehensive peace agreement process, which is the only hope for the future of Sudan and Darfur. Those expulsions were unhelpful, regrettable and totally unacceptable, and we call for them to be reversed. Simultaneously, we need to ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided as a matter of urgency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chris Mullin— [ Laughter. ] I am trying to promote his book, like everybody else. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), no doubt speaking from the foothills, expressed concern about the commitment to African conflict resolution. The Foreign Secretary made the important point that the rise in assessed contribution for the UK is more than the reduction in discretionary contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) raised the question of the effectiveness of aid, and she is absolutely right, whether we are talking about Sierra Leone or elsewhere. I will visit Sierra Leone in the next few days and I will take account of my hon. Friend’s points when looking at the difference we are making there, but the UK’s intervention and the subsequent aid that we have provided has made a tremendous difference to the progress made in that country from a very poor baseline.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) rightly raised the question of Zimbabwe. He has been a consistent champion of the people of Zimbabwe, who have faced dire consequences on account of the behaviour of the Mugabe regime. We support the new Prime Minister. We hope that the new Government will be able to make progress on human rights and economic reform, and we stand ready to help. But it has to be demonstrated to us that the Government there are serious about changing the policies that have done so much damage to the people of Zimbabwe.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) talked, quite rightly, about the importance of good governance, democracy and transparency to
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the improvements that we seek in Africa. The distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), spoke about his recent visits and the lessons that he has learned, which he brought to this debate. It is important to make the point that those visits often inform our views in a far more powerful way than abstract discussions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) talked about the situation in Zimbabwe. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was right to draw attention to the importance of the right to protect. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) was right to raise concerns about the situation in Swaziland, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) was right to focus on the importance of twinning relationships between schools and fair trade organisations in making a difference.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was right to point to the central role of faith in many African countries. We need to engage in a positive way with the contribution that faith has to make, both in this country and in those countries. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) was right to say that the lack of progress that we have made on maternal mortality is scandalous, as is the impact that it has on African countries. We are working very closely with organisations such as the White Ribbon Alliance, and Sarah Brown has taken a leading role in that. We want to see the international health organisations—

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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