Malcolm Bruce (Gordon, Liberal Democrat)
The indulgence of the House has allowed the Committee to bring two reports for debate, and we are grateful for that. Indeed, under the new procedure we had the advantage of briefly presenting the report on Afghanistan in the main Chamber, which enabled us to have a good, topical exchange. Therefore, I do not wish to detain the Committee by repeating too much of what was said; instead, I want to focus on points of difference and points of commonality between the Committee and the Government.
Obviously, the most contentious thing we said in our report was that the Department for International Development’s unique mandate in Afghanistan of promoting a viable state, which it was given by the National Security Committee, was—I think this is the best way to express it—unrealistically ambitious. I have read the Government’s response, and I did not expect them necessarily to accept what we said, but we thought it was important to raise the issue. Of course we, too, would like Afghanistan to be a viable state. After all the trouble that the people of Afghanistan have been through, they deserve a viable state, and anything the UK Government can do to contribute to that is right, proper and responsible, so I hope we have agreement on that.
Our concern, however, was that there was an over-extended idea of what DFID, specifically, was capable of achieving. That took us away from the fact that DFID is good at promoting development, in the sense of better governance, which is a contribution towards a viable state; encouraging livelihoods; delivering education and health; and generally improving quality of life. In a situation that will be very uncertain and unpredictable post 2014, we felt it would perhaps be better to make that DFID’s priority. In any case, the Government have mandated DFID to do that, and I quite understand that it will say, “That is our responsibility. That is what we want to do, and we will say how.” However, I hope the Minister will understand that our comments were meant in the spirit not only of saying, “Let’s get hold of what’s possible,” but of establishing what the real priorities should be, given what DFID can realistically do, rather than getting ourselves too hung up on aspirations that require many more players—indeed, the entire international community and all the players in Afghanistan—to deliver.
That said, the Committee decided it was important to revisit the situation in Afghanistan to look beyond the date when the engagement of combat troops comes to an end at the end of 2014. The Committee had visited Afghanistan five years before; Richard Burden was on that visit, and I obviously went on both visits. The visit this time took place between 17 and
Once we had analysed the situation, we felt there was a second significant comment to make. It was impressed on us time and again that the almost defining dilemma in Afghanistan—indeed, the way we could articulate the progress that had been, and continued to be, made there—was the status of women. A lot of the information presented to us—it consisted not just of statements; it was backed up by facts and figures—said that Afghanistan is, without qualification, the worst place in the world to be a woman.
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon, Conservative)
The IDC’s excellent report makes a number of really important statements on this issue. In particular, you state that
“the treatment of women…post-2014 will be the litmus test”
for success. There has been a lot of progress in the past 10 years, but 87% of Afghan women still face some form of violence. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that one solution would be for the next operational plan to include women’s rights, and particularly dealing with violence against women, as a thematic priority?
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon, Liberal Democrat)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, the Committee does think that. To be honest, we would like the Government to take a much more explicit position on that. In reply to us, they said that, based on the Tokyo agreement and other measures, they believed enough was in place to protect the achievements so far and the rights of women post 2014. I have to say that that view was not widely shared by the women we met, which was not very many, but the ones we did meet were very vocal. Although we understand the Government’s reasoning, when we tried to look at programmes specifically aimed at the rights and needs of women, we found that those programmes really did not exist. The response to that is, “Well, that’s mainstreaming.” However, the issue of women in Afghanistan is such that mainstreaming simply is not, and cannot be, enough. That is precisely why we used the expression “litmus test”.
Those are the two most contentious things we said, and I am quite certain the Committee will stand by them. No doubt the Minister will stand by the Government’s response. Even if we disagree, however, I hope we can accommodate the fact that we are looking for the maximum engagement by the UK Government to ensure that the progress that has been made is, to the extent that we have the capacity to do this, continued beyond 2014. I also hope we recognise that monitoring the rights and progress of women is the best single way of identifying what is going on in Afghanistan. I put it as crudely as this: if the position of women in education and employment, and the moves to tackle violence against women, have moved in a positive direction by 2020, we can be sure that Afghanistan has moved in a positive direction; if the reverse is true, the reverse will be true for the whole of Afghanistan.
That does not mean there has not been a lot of progress or that we can make any serious predictions about where Afghanistan will be by 2014. The optimists say, “It’s a success. By 2014, we will have achieved a fully trained army, a fully functioning police force and a viable Government. We can withdraw. Afghanistan is secure as a functioning, viable and, to some extent, democratic state.” That is absolutely what we would like
it to be, but I do not think anybody believes it will be like that. However, it seemed to us that the pessimists, who think Afghanistan will immediately collapse and be taken over by the Taliban, were unlikely to be right either. The picture seemed much more confused and unpredictable. We do not even know who the Government will be, who will be elected President or what the composition of the Parliament will be.
We received some disturbing evidence. BBC correspondent David Loyn is quoted in our evidence as describing Afghanistan as a “rentier state”. In other words, an awful lot of the movers and shakers simply go where the money is and siphon it off for their own purposes. Not all of it is going that way, because clearly if it were, there would not be progress in the number of girls in school and children being vaccinated, or in the delivery of health services and the improvement of roads. It is completely wrong to think that nothing has been delivered. A lot has been delivered, and progress has been made. There are now 3 million girls in school, where there were none before; but there are probably another 3 million who are still not in school, so let us not lose sight of that. We have not cracked the whole problem.
Such things are variable across Afghanistan. One of our difficulties was that we could not go to places we should have liked to visit; but there is plenty of evidence to show that things are very difficult in some places and better in others. That has probably always been true of Afghanistan. It has always been a centripetal kind of state, with a lot of variability. One group in the Committee went to Helmand, and one group, which included me, went to Bamiyan. That is a tale of two completely different Afghanistans. Helmand, which is of course in the headlines as far as Britain is concerned, is where British troops are deployed, where we run the provincial reconstruction team, and where we have suffered substantial casualties.
I do not want to get engaged in the question of the military position in Afghanistan. It has been well expressed and documented, in Helmand in particular, but it is clear to the Committee that we cannot, post 2014 when the PRT is closed and the combat troops are withdrawn, leave the people of Helmand without any commitment from the UK to their future development. However, we must recognise, as the Department for International Development has done, that operating a district office, for example, is unlikely to be achievable in that scenario. Indeed, the decision has been taken that that will not happen, so the programme will have to be run out of Kabul. That means, in our view, that we must have a different approach, involving partners who can, as our representatives, engage locally and win the trust, and the hearts and minds, of people on the ground. It cannot be done from Kabul; it must be done by people who are there, who probably will not be DFID personnel.
On the other hand, those of us who went to Bamiyan—unfortunately it was only for a day trip and we could not stay for a second day as had been intended, or get out and about as we had hoped—saw a completely different picture. It is worth recording that the PRT, which is being wound down, is led by the New Zealanders. We had a spectacular flight into Bamiyan, through the mountains and past the Buddhas on to the airfield by
which the PRT is located and were quickly whisked from the plane to the PRT. The New Zealand commander said he would happily have walked into town with us, as he had done with a three-star American general in full uniform several weeks before. They were able to sit down in a coffee house, and all that happened on the walk to town, a mile there and back, was that the general was stopped every few yards by people insisting on having their photograph taken with him, shaking his hand and thanking him and the NATO forces for bringing what they saw as peace and opportunities for prosperity and development. The records show that in Bamiyan there has not been an explosion of any kind of ordnance in 10 years; so not all in Afghanistan is violence, conflict and insecurity. There is a variation, from one extreme to the other. It is important to note that, because it shows that there are opportunities.
The chancellor of the university in Bamiyan told us that the matriculation of young women students had gone up from under 10% to more than a third of students in three years. As he put it, fathers and young men appreciated the prospect of educated daughters and wives. That was positive and good.
Having gone to the contentious places, we concluded—and I think that the Government agree—that the programme must be flexible and fleet of foot, and will have to respond to rapidly changing and unpredictable circumstances. We suggest that that approach is more likely to work. Indeed, if there is a plan B that recognises that, we will not be inhibited by sudden changes of direction; we shall have enough options.
Others want to speak, so I do not want to detain the House other than to say that we made a particular recommendation about our concern about the security forces, with which the Government did not wholly agree. Some colleagues had a briefing earlier in the week, which I could not attend, and they may say more if they catch your eye, Mr Walker. My understanding is that there are points of concern about the treatment of people in detention, which has deteriorated; about the variable functioning of the police; and, particularly, to return to the gender issue, about the shortage of women police—there are only 1,300—and the clear need for many more of them. In the post 2014 situation, trust between the people and the police will be a crucial part of security and space for development.
Will the Minister tell us something about the future of the community development councils? We did not have much chance to engage with them this time, but we got evidence about them, and have engaged with them in the past. Our view was that they are a good basis for grass-roots democracy and the building up of a more decentralised capacity. In that context we wanted more devolution of decision making to the provinces, because the nature of Afghanistan is that capacity is needed across the country. Kabul does not hold Afghanistan and if there is no capacity for administration and policy delivery outside Kabul the country cannot hold. We are concerned about the extent to which the UK Government, who have a policy in that area, will help to deliver it further.
The Committee has a positive wish that those who believe that the engagement in Afghanistan was a mistake should be proved wrong. Most of us do not believe we should not have been there. Indeed, there was plenty of evidence that an awful lot of people in Afghanistan are
extremely grateful for the improvements in their circumstances since the NATO engagement, compared with the previous 20 years. The optimistic point is that an awful lot of people therefore have a stake in ensuring that those improvements should not be lost. It seems to the Committee that the role of the UK Government, in co-ordination with the international community, is to do all that they can to ensure that those gains will be maintained and, if possible, extended. In those circumstances the priority for DFID is to do what it does best—development—rather than nation building.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Malcolm Bruce. As he said, I was not able to go on the last Committee visit to Afghanistan. Injury, sadly, prevented me from doing so. However, I was on the visit that we paid to the country in 2007. It is the only time I have been there, and is an experience that will stay with me for ever. Afghanistan is one of those places that gets to you.
That leads me to a point about the overall tenor of our report, and what we were trying to say. What we said about the need to be clear as to what we are doing post 2014—particularly in relation to DFID’s work in Afghanistan—and about concentrating on such things as poverty alleviation, and focusing less on state-building, attracted comment. It is important to point out that we are not saying that the things DFID and the UK Government have been doing until now were unimportant. We certainly do not say that state-building in Afghanistan is unimportant. However, we are cognisant of the kind of message that has been impressed on hon. Members across the House for some time by Rory Stewart, who is not a member of the Committee but who has a wealth of experience from Afghanistan and beyond. We need to be clear about what we are doing. I said that Afghanistan is the sort of place that gets to you; but those who want to contribute as positively and constructively as possible need to get Afghanistan. Part of that means not trying to do everything and being aware, to some extent, of what we can do and what we can do best. That is not to say that we should be unambitious and go only for the easy stuff—it is not that we should climb mountains that are flat. We need to concentrate and focus on the kinds of things we say in our report, which are hugely challenging issues. Gender and the position of women are not unchallenging areas in which to be involved in Afghanistan, nor is the accountability of the security forces or what we have said about human rights. It is important to set that in context.
DFID and the UK have done tremendous work there, but as we move to a new situation post 2014, which is uncharted in so many ways, it is important to bear in mind the wise words we have heard from people such as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and others.
I would like to touch briefly on one area on which I would appreciate the Minister’s comments. To some extent it flows from our report and is certainly topical at the moment: emergency relief and humanitarian assistance as we move into winter. I shall refer to a striking article
on new year’s eve by Emma Graham-Harrison, who was in Kabul. She quoted the UN deputy envoy and humanitarian co-ordinator in Afghanistan, Mark Bowden, who clearly said that more aid money needs to be dedicated to emergency relief at the moment in particular. The article came out with a striking quote from 77-year-old Shah Ghasi:
“Each family already has two or three people who are sick”.
He has squatted in a camp on the outskirts of Kabul for nearly a decade. He says:
“We only have hot water to try and keep warm—no stoves, no fuel.”
If we look at the forecast, we see that nobody knows how severe the winter will be. It is forecast to be a bit milder than 2011, so the impact of cold on the camps may not be as bad as it was last year, but we are talking about a country with one of the world’s worst child mortality rates, rampant malnutrition and other health problems that can make the challenges presented by winter particularly difficult.
The Minister and I have discussed, across the Floor of the main Chamber, other emergency situations on which winter is having a big impact—Syria being an obvious one. The UK is stepping up to the plate there better than a number of other countries are. The scale of the problem in Afghanistan as we go into winter should not be ignored; it could become greater, as violence is still bad and in many ways getting worse. Slightly echoing some of the problems in Syria, Mark Bowden said that only a tiny percentage of aid money coming into Afghanistan, perhaps just single figures, goes to supporting urgent humanitarian needs, and that donors stumped up less than half the cash the UN sought for Afghanistan’s emergency response fund this year; at one point the fund was completely empty. Those comments were reported in the article to which I referred.
The situation is serious. A week before the article was written, 10 people apparently froze to death waiting to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan. When the problems are that severe, in a country as poor as Afghanistan, with its problems of health and conflict, we need to address them, particularly at the moment. If the Minister says one or two things about that, I will be particularly grateful. If he wants to reflect on it and write to us, I would also, obviously, be grateful for that.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire, Conservative)
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, for what I believe to be the first time. I visited Afghanistan for the first time with the Committee last year. I particularly want to focus on the rights of women and girls, as did my right hon. Friend Sir Malcolm Bruce, the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. It is an appropriate topic to discuss, because the UN theme for international women’s day, which is very soon—
“Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”
Since 2001, when we went into Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, we have spent £30 billion on aid to the country, and I still believe that the rights of women and girls have not been fully recognised. I would like to point out, however,
that the aid we have invested in Afghanistan has achieved an enormous amount. For example, as my right hon. Friend said, more than 3 million girls are now in education. Maternal mortality has also been brought down.
Prior to 2001, the Taliban banned girls from going to school. The role of women has been key to transforming Afghanistan. I am pleased that the report, in recommendations 19 and 20, clearly states what needs to be done to ensure that work in that area continues to move forward, and gains need to be capitalised on, not lost. Some women we met when we took evidence here, who were modestly but well dressed professional women, were asked what would happen if they dressed that way in Afghanistan; the simple answer was, “We’d be stoned to death.”
I would like to mention three headlines on three consecutive days in December 2012. One from Reuters states:
“Female government worker shot dead in Afghanistan…Nadia Sediqqi, acting head of women’s affairs department in Laghman province, is shot dead on her way to work. Violence against women appears to be on the rise in Afghanistan…Unknown gunmen have shot dead a senior female government worker five months after her predecessor was killed in a bomb attack, officials in eastern Afghanistan say.”
“Afghanistan women ‘still suffering horrific abuse’…Thousands of Afghan women are being failed by the country’s justice system…Yet the reality suggests many women still live with the daily fear of violence. Last month police said they arrested two men in Kunduz for allegedly beheading a teenage girl after her father rejected a marriage proposal. It came soon after four policemen were sentenced for raping an 18-year-old.”
“Afghanistan: Women suffer despite anti-abuse law, says UN”.
Things are not as rosy as we would like.
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon, Conservative)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the point raised by the Chair of the Select Committee about the worrying failure to recruit female police officers highlighted something concrete that the UK can do to improve the situation? More female police officers would help, not only because they would be recruited into economic activity, but because there would be women in the security services who those suffering violence could go to, so they could access protection from the police force, which is often hostile. Afghanistan has a target of recruiting 5,000 female police officers by 2015. Surely we should support that target.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire, Conservative)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we know, we also need more female doctors able to examine girls when they have been raped or abused in any way, so that they will share their stories with females, rather than be unable to talk because they are being examined by men or, very often, taken into custody because they have been raped.
To say that women in Afghanistan are second-class citizens is still a vast understatement. The Taliban are still present in Afghanistan and some would argue that they have moderated their view on women, which I believe many of them have, but there is a divide, with some of them wanting to return to their old-fashioned values. For example, I am sure that most people are
aware of the incident in Kandahar, when students were forced to watch as their head teacher was executed for ignoring Taliban orders to stop the schooling of young girls. In addition, only a year ago the current Government, led by President Karzai, supported senior clerics in the country who have allowed husbands to beat their wives in certain circumstances.
The organisation Global Rights has stated that 87% of Afghan women will suffer domestic abuse in their lifetime, and those who stand up to their husbands are punished for their behaviour in disrespecting their husband. In Afghanistan, we met an educated woman who has a good job, but her brother will still decide who she marries. She has no choice in that, and she cannot even tell him the sort of man she would like to marry, because he will ignore it. That is not uncommon there; it happens all the time.
Before I visited Afghanistan, I read a story on the BBC News website about the “I had to run away” report published by Human Rights Watch. The report highlighted that hundreds of Afghan women are in jail for so-called moral crimes, including running away and extramarital sex. It stated that women were punished for fleeing domestic abuse and violence, and that some rape victims were imprisoned. I want to point out what is meant by “extramarital sex” in that context. It is sex outside marriage where a woman is forced to have sex against her will—what I think most people in this room would consider a clear case of rape, but which is in fact deemed a moral crime. The report also calls on the Afghan Government to release about 400 women and girls held in jails or juvenile detention centres.
There has been a sharp rise in honour killings and violent crimes against women. Forced marriages and forced child marriages remain widespread, which, apart from a range of emotional distress, means that women and girls are unable to become independent. They become trapped in a vicious circle that often makes them reliant on their abusive husbands. That is the current situation in Afghanistan, more than a decade after military intervention. My deep personal fear, which is shared by Orzala Ashraf, the independent civil society activist who gave evidence to our Committee, is that as we approach the withdrawal of forces in 2014, women risk “dropping off the agenda.”
I must pay tribute to the former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell. On his appointment to that role, he made the empowerment of women a central theme of his Afghanistan development strategy. Our report points out our slight concern that that may not be being translated into a priority for DFID on location in Afghanistan. Should that be true, I hope that the Government will encourage such a priority and press it as the most important part of what they can do.
It is extremely important that the Government work with the international community to support Afghanistan fully to meet United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. I am therefore pleased that DFID, in its response to the Select Committee report, has agreed with recommendation 19, which is to seek to combat violence against women through support for women’s shelters and legal services, and to continue to ensure that women and girls are a major focus for its education and wealth creation programmes.
However, I urge DFID to rethink its disagreement with recommendation 20, which proposed the creation of a joint donor and Government plan for women and girls during the transition. That would encourage donors to commit themselves to specific programmes and objectives based on evidence and consultation. I believe that, as it states in our report, that
“could help catalyse greater commitment and sustained political will to ensure that women and girls are not forgotten in transition.”
I hope that the report will make a real difference to the people of Afghanistan and to world security. I know that the Minister will do all that he can to support our views.
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and to follow my hon. Friend Pauline Latham, who made such a passionate speech about the position of women in Afghanistan. My colleagues on the International Development Committee have covered some areas in detail, so I shall attempt to cover those that have not been touched on.
I want to focus on what our report said about the private sector and DFID’s response on that. I also want to say a few words about taxation and the increase in revenue, which has been one of the success stories in Afghanistan but still needs a lot more work. I will then conclude with some remarks about oversight for the Afghan national security forces, and about this week’s comments by the UN deputy special representative, with whom we had a meeting.
As we all know, the private sector is the engine for growth, and growth is as important to Afghanistan as it is to the United Kingdom. One of the major areas of disagreement that the Government have with our report is on our comments about DFID’s approach to the private sector in Afghanistan. In many ways, I hope that we were wrong and they were right, but we had some concerns about DFID’s approach to that extremely important area.
It was difficult for us to see the work on the ground. As my right hon. Friend Sir Malcolm Bruce mentioned, we hoped to see some of the work in Bamiyan, but it just did not prove possible, so we had to take people’s word for it. I will just cover some of the areas in which DFID is involved. The first is agriculture, which is of course absolutely vital. It is a passion of mine. DFID is involved in the reduction of poppy cultivation, and therefore in the increase of the cultivation of other crops; in de-mining; in strengthening institutions focused on agriculture; in improving productivity of cereal crops through irrigation; in high-value vegetables; and, indeed, in commercial poultry. All of those are essential.
One thing that we noted and wanted to bring to the attention of both DFID and the Afghan Government was the fact that many opportunities for adding value
to agricultural produce do not seem to be taken up. Most agricultural produce went across the border to Pakistan in raw form and came back in processed form, thus denying Afghans the opportunity to add value, income and the employment of their own people. We want to encourage DFID to see how it can further help in adding value to agricultural produce in Afghanistan. Agriculture is of course essential and, by the end of this period in 2015, we want DFID to have made real progress in that area. I am sure that it is capable of doing so, and that the Minister will respond about what is now going on and being achieved.
DFID has a strong programme to support employment and enterprise, particularly through small and medium-sized enterprises that, realistically, as is the case in this country, will be the main generator of employment and growth in Afghanistan. DFID’s target is 20,000 jobs by the end of this period. It would be excellent if the Minister gave us feedback on how that programme is going and what it consists of. It would be a great step forward if the programme could achieve that and, indeed, even more.
Another area is good infrastructure, without which economic development is difficult at best, and impossible a lot of the time. DFID has a major programme of developing infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, with more than 1,100 km of secondary road and 1,095 of tertiary road planned. I am very pleased by that, because the emphasis is often on primary roads—asphalt or tarmac roads—that look good and are great if people are near one, but if people are even 5 km away and on an awful road, such roads do not help much to get their produce or animals to market. DFID has concentrated on that, as we saw in the Congo. DFID’s work on one road that I had the pleasure of travelling along meant that a journey that would have taken five days took two hours. It makes a huge difference. I would be pleased to hear the Minister’s comments on how the programme to develop rural road infrastructure is going.
Then there is the elephant in the room of the Afghan economy: mining. We were told that the value of minerals in Afghanistan is estimated—possibly underestimated—at $3 trillion. Their extraction would make an enormous difference not only to the Afghan economy but to Afghanistan’s tax base and therefore its public services. We were pleased to see that DFID has engaged strongly in the development of governance over mining, particularly taxation. We would be pleased to hear from the Minister what progress has been made since we were there, whether the mining industry, which was developing fast when we were there, has made further progress and whether that has resulted in an increase in revenues to the Government as well as local employment. I think we are all hoping that we were a bit too pessimistic about DFID’s private sector programme, and that the Government are right that it is on track and will make a major contribution. I hope that we are proven wrong. That is what we would all like.
On taxation, tax revenues about a decade ago amounted to a mere 3% of a very low GDP: in effect, to nothing, which made Afghanistan completely dependent on aid. With the substantial help of DFID, that has now risen to 11%, more than in Pakistan, which was referred to in the earlier debate, where it is less than 10%. We should congratulate both the Afghan Government and DFID on their work on that. However, 11% is still a long way from where things should be.
I will make a few comments on taxation, perhaps referring a little to the earlier debate. Taxation is indeed the route out of aid, because from taxation derives the ability to pay for public services. I remember reading in the office of the Tanzanian tax inspector with whom I was having some discussions when I worked out there, “When I pay taxes, I buy civilisation.” That was pretty much the only comment made in that office with which I agreed, but it made the point that taxes are the means of acquiring schooling, health care, security and all the other goods that we take for granted.
There are various types of taxes: income-based taxes, sales tax and VAT, mineral royalties, customs duties and crop levies. Traditionally, in developing economies, the bulk of taxation has come from customs duties and crop levies, because they are easy to collect; you see something—a crop or an imported car—and you tax it. However, those are regressive taxes, in that crop levies affect smallholder farmers and tend effectively to result in a marginal income tax rate, which can often be 30%, 40% or even 50% once the cost of production has been taken into account, and customs duties tend to prevent trade, particularly exports. Concentrating on those taxes is not recommended.
The route upwards in tax collection is clearly sales taxes such as VAT and income-based taxes, whether on personal or company income. Much more needs to be done both in Afghanistan and elsewhere on the collection of corporate and personal income taxes as well as VAT. They require highly skilled and honest revenue authorities, which is where DFID comes into its own. I urge DFID to continue its support to the Afghan revenue authorities for the collection of income taxes and mineral royalties. In Burundi, we saw the tax revenue increase by a substantial amount through DFID’s involvement and the work that it is doing to promote trade and investment in east Africa. I want increased support for the revenue authorities in Afghanistan, because DFID’s work has been so successful up to now.
A final point on taxation: in any country, a follow-up is needed on the discrepancy between obvious wealth and taxes paid. We heard earlier about the fact that some of the wealthiest people in Pakistan pay no taxes. It is blindingly obvious to everybody that they should be paying taxes, and yet they do not. I believe that the same is true in Afghanistan. The revenue authorities need to be able to conduct their affairs without fear or favour, and DFID should be helping them do so.
I turn to the question of the Afghan national security forces. We suggested in our report, although DFID disagreed, that there should be independent oversight. I understand why DFID disagreed—it felt that sufficient checks and balances already exist in the system, and perhaps they need to be given the opportunity to work—but we understand that the United Nations human rights report to be published next week will say something along the lines of “Conditions of detention have deteriorated” and raise concerns, particularly about Afghanistan local police groups. We understand why DFID rejected our recommendation, but can the Minister update us on whether he feels that the inspectorate of police and the other bodies put in place are proving effective, or whether the jury is still out?
In conclusion, I reiterate the comments made by several of my colleagues about the progress being made. It was an honour to go to Afghanistan. I pay great tribute to DFID’s staff there, and to all the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Council whom we met, for their warmth, their hospitality and the value of the work that they do. Progress has been made. It is vital that we get the message across. So many British people, particularly our armed forces, have made huge sacrifices to bring advances that are quite apparent to the people in Afghanistan. In my county of Staffordshire we have the Third Mercians, who served in Afghanistan in 2011 and will probably go out again at the end of this year. I want them to know that the work they are doing is vital to the people of Afghanistan, that by and large it is appreciated and that they will be honoured in the memory of what they have done.
Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow, Labour)
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, not for the first time. It is a great pleasure to be part of this debate. I thank the Chair and members of the Select Committee on International Development for their excellent work in producing this report and the one presented in the previous debate. The issues facing Afghanistan, particularly as we move towards gradual exit post-2014, are critical, and it is right that we focus on what happens next and what the UK Government do, particularly in relation to international development.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to delivering aid to Afghanistan at levels comparable to the present until 2017. However, there are major concerns about what will happen to the country’s aid budget beyond then. As most would agree, an abrupt cut to foreign aid could severely destabilise Afghanistan and have an adverse effect on its economy and people. Hon. Members and my hon. Friend Richard Burden have raised a number of issues, focusing particularly on the impact on women, who remain among the most vulnerable in Afghanistan and in comparison to others around the world.
Some 97% of Afghanistan’s official GDP comes from spending related to the international military and donor presence, and local businesses currently rely heavily on development aid and foreign military expenditure. Jeremy Lefroy focused in his speech on the importance of the economy. I point out that the economy is already contracting as troops leave. It is expected that future growth will be slower, especially in urban and conflict areas. The combination of a drop in aid levels and military withdrawal could have a devastating impact and set back the progress that has been made to date. The World Bank has already warned that an abrupt cut-off in aid could lead to the collapse of political authorities, civil war and a greater reliance on opium profits. Will the Minister assure us that the UK will maintain adequate aid levels and increase measures to improve aid effectiveness beyond 2017? Moreover, given the risks involved, will he also give us an assurance that the UK Government will use their influence to ensure that other donor countries do not withdraw aid abruptly?
The Government’s response says that Afghanistan’s extractive industries will contribute significantly to economic growth, enabling the Afghan authorities to deliver basic
services and reduce the country’s dependency on aid. According to the World Bank, the extractive industries could contribute to half of the 4.9% per annum GDP growth projected to 2018-19. However, it will still be many years before revenues from this sector will start mitigating the effects of the military draw-down. What other measures are the Minister and his Department taking to mitigate those effects?
Afghanistan is still in the throes of conflict and lacking in some of the strong governance mechanisms that can drive transparent and accountable government. Given those facts, it is hardly surprising that the report has highlighted the ongoing challenges and problems of corruption. According to Transparency International, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Ensuring that each pound spent is trackable and accountable, as the former Secretary of State for International Development promised, is incredibly difficult and important. What steps are the Department and the Minister taking to improve the accountability and transparency of UK Government funding to Afghanistan?
I want to focus now on the very important subject of gender, which has been raised by the Chair of the Committee, Sir Malcolm Bruce, and others, including Pauline Latham, who is the chair of the all-party UN women group—I serve as the vice-chair. She has been working hard with colleagues across parties on the issue of violence against women in Afghanistan and across the world, especially in the light of the recent issues posed by the rape, attack and killing of a woman in India.
The situation of women around the world is of deep concern, even in countries such as India where, despite significant economic progress, women’s rights still fall short. The hon. Lady pointed to the huge challenges faced by Afghanistan and the important contribution that Britain and the international community must make if we are to see progress in this area.
I welcome the UK Government’s decision to commit to protecting and promoting the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, but it is important that they follow that through with practical action. The IDC report has highlighted a number of important recommendations. We have constantly heard words of commitment from the Government in relation to women not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the world, but what additional steps will be taken to show that genuine commitment?
Women have made important gains in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. As the report highlights, 2.2 million girls are now in school, compared with only 5,000 under the Taliban. That is a success that we all need to celebrate. However, as the report highlights, the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, while improved in some ways, remains incredibly troubling. As the Chair of the Committee pointed out, women in Afghanistan are the worst off in the world, and we must ensure that we continue our efforts to improve their position.
In a statement, President Obama said:
“Afghanistan cannot succeed unless it gives opportunity to its women.”
Failure to do so will seriously undermine the legacy of the UK’s intervention and could lead to a dangerous and uncertain future both for Afghan women and for the nation more generally.
Women and girls still suffer from a lack of access to the basic legal protections. A recent UN report argues that although the law on the elimination of violence against women is being used to secure some convictions, it is often ignored by many in the police and justice sector. Does the Minister agree that DFID should create specific projects in its next Afghanistan operational plan to work on women’s protection and empowerment? As has already been mentioned, when it comes to issues of equality, mainstreaming is a challenge even in a UK context let alone in a country such as Afghanistan. Given that there is a real need to keep the pressure up, is it not right that there should be a specific special focus on women alongside the mainstream interventions with which DFID is involved?
Let me turn now to the projects that are targeted at women, especially those that focus on the specific need to protect them against violence and, as the hon. Lady mentioned, rape and other forms of oppression. It is not clear that the Government are fully committed to the kind of interventions that are needed and that require special focus. Will the Minister clarify how many DFID-backed projects target the needs of women?
It is disappointing that the Government’s response to this report does not endorse the IDC’s recommendation to create a joint donor-Government plan for women and girls during the transition. The report says that DFID’s programmes already support the objectives set out in the Government’s national action plan for women in Afghanistan. However, the national priority programme has described NAPWA’s implementation as “slow and insignificant”.
ActionAid has pointed out that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has secured only a fraction of the $30 million that it needs to deliver the national priority programme, which is just a first step towards full implementation of NAPWA. Will the Minister tell us how his Department will ensure that all Afghan authorities and institutions are fully compliant with the organisation End Violence Against Women and NAPWA?
In conclusion, the coming years will be challenging in Afghanistan. As international attention will inevitably shift elsewhere as troops come home, we must do all we can now to ensure that the Afghan people build a sustainable future for themselves. One of the most important elements of that, as the report rightly points out, is ensuring that the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan is improved. We must build on the achievements that have been made in the last decade and ensure that women and girls are protected from violence and discrimination. That will require a continued commitment from the UK Government. The sacrifice of our troops and the loss of thousands of lives—not just among British troops—will be in vain if we do not secure a sustainable future for Afghanistan. People must not be worse off than they were before the conflict and the intervention began. Our involvement must be about ensuring that we are there with the people of Afghanistan long after our troops leave.
Alan Duncan (Minister of State, International Development; Rutland and Melton, Conservative)
I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Malcolm Bruce for securing this debate. We in the Department for
International Development welcomed the International Development Committee’s report on Afghanistan, to which we have of course already formally replied. Put simply, the Government strongly agree with the majority of the Committee’s recommendations. In particular, we recognise that the next few years hold considerable uncertainty, and we welcome the Committee’s judgment that we retain an obligation both to the Afghan people and to British service personnel to continue our assistance for many years to come. That is why, at the Tokyo conference last July, we worked hard to secure long-term support from our international partners for Afghanistan’s development beyond security transition in 2014. I can tell Rushanara Ali, who is the Opposition Front-Bencher, that the UK is specifically committed to maintaining its current aid level—approximately £178 million a year at the moment—beyond transition until at least 2017.
We are now working closely with the Afghan Government to ensure that they deliver the essential economic and governance reforms agreed at Tokyo. Although it is still early days, I am pleased to report some good progress. Structures are now in place to monitor performance against the Tokyo commitments. Let me assure hon. Members that we will link our long-term support to progress by the Afghan Government on these critical reforms.
However, we do not support the Committee’s recommendation for a mechanistic link between performance and financial support. Nevertheless, the House should be in no doubt that we will act when we need to, as we did, for instance, in suspending Afghan reconstruction trust fund payments following the Kabul bank crisis. And as co-host of the ministerial review conference in 2014, we will engage with our international partners to speak with a unified voice.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said, Afghanistan is perhaps the worst place in the world for a woman to live, and that point was profoundly echoed by my hon. Friend Pauline Latham. A key commitment at Tokyo was strong action on women’s rights. As the Committee’s report said and as hon. Friends have highlighted during this debate, Afghan women and girls continue to face enormous disadvantages. The Secretary of State for International Development has made clear the priority that she places on this issue, including on her recent visit to Afghanistan, where she raised her concern directly with President Karzai.
We are already supporting a range of initiatives that we hope will benefit Afghan women. Thanks in part to UK support, there has been considerable progress in girls’ education, as my right hon. Friend mentioned; there are now more than 2 million girls in school, when there were virtually none in school in 2001. Almost one in two pregnant women in Afghanistan receive antenatal care today, compared with only one in six in 2003. We have also contributed to improving women’s access to justice and jobs.
It is also important for us to say that we agree with the Committee that violence against women remains a significant concern, and I commend the work of NGOs such as ActionAid in trying to combat that violence. The UK will continue to press the Afghan Government to implement the current law on the elimination of violence
against women, or EVAW. Through the Tawanmandi programme, we are also supporting 35 women’s organisations to take forward a range of activities, including raising awareness of the EVAW law and providing legal support and shelters to victims of violence.
We continue to look for ways to improve opportunities for Afghan women and girls in all of our programmes. In the next few months, our focus will be on supporting women to participate in the political process and in elections in 2014. However, we do not agree with the Committee’s recommendation for a joint Government-donor plan for women and girls through transition. The Afghan Government’s commitments to women and girls are already laid out in the Tokyo framework, and it is important that we focus our efforts on ensuring that those commitments are delivered. In our view, drafting another plan risks becoming a distraction.
The UK already supports Afghan women in public life. Our work with the Afghan Interior Ministry is helping the Afghan police to protect and uphold women’s rights. The British embassy in Kabul also funds organisations such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, to ensure that they can continue to operate effectively and with the necessary security.
In the same vein, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said, we disagreed with the Committee’s proposal for the establishment of a new oversight body to investigate allegations of violence by the Afghan national security forces. There are a number of existing mechanisms, both within the Afghan Government and externally, to carry out that function. And as part of the UK’s work with the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Defence in Afghanistan, we already train, advise and mentor staff on a range of issues, including human rights. Given the number of challenges ahead, it is important that we focus our efforts on what needs to be done and avoid any duplication of process. For example, as highlighted on page 45 of the Committee’s report, it is absolutely essential that access to education, health care and other basic services is improved for the long-term stability of Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy raised a number of issues, including concern about the development of the private sector. I suggest that DFID’s approach to wealth creation is much broader than the Committee’s report has suggested. Our programmes range from encouraging international investment and building regional trade links right down to providing support for local farmers’ co-operatives and skills training.
For instance, in Nangarhar province we are supporting rural entrepreneurs to produce high-value vegetables, and in Kama district we are successfully supporting poultry businesses that are providing jobs for women in 20 villages. As for extractives, which I totally agree is perhaps the largest and most important sector in Afghanistan and one in which there is of course enormous scope for corruption, DFID has supported the Ministry of Mines since 2010 to develop a regulatory framework, to encourage international investment and to ensure that effective management of the country’s mineral wealth can be built up. Furthermore, we are currently developing a package of continuing support in this sector. On the more detailed area of infrastructure, I undertake to write to my hon. Friend with more detail about such issues as roads.
Let me reassure the Committee and the House that our programme is already carefully balanced between developing the capacity of the Afghan Government at the national and provincial level to manage services, and ensuring effective delivery in the districts.
I now turn to the serious issue raised by Richard Burden. We agree with the Committee that Afghanistan faces significant humanitarian challenges, and I can confirm to the House that we are committed to continuing to build up our humanitarian programme. Last year, my Department delivered life-saving assistance to more than 5,600 families that had been affected by the 2011 drought, and provided food and other essential household items to around 150,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan. As recommended on page 80 of the Committee’s report, we are also engaging with rural communities to help them to strengthen their resilience to these changes. And DFID is currently developing a multi-year, multi-sector package of support for some of the neediest sectors in Afghanistan, to deal with issues such as nutrition and food security.
We are working hard to ensure that ordinary Afghans have opportunities to make a decent living for themselves and their families, while at the same time helping to stimulate long-term, sustainable economic growth in the country. We disagree with the Committee’s finding that DFID’s approach to wealth creation is too centralised and disconnected from the needs of ordinary Afghans, as I hope I have illustrated by giving those two examples just now. As I was saying earlier, our programmes range from encouraging international investment support at the regional level right down to the village level. Indeed, UK aid has equipped more than 11,200 young people in Helmand, including 1,900 women, with vocational skills.
Let me turn to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, at the start of his comments, referred to as DFID’s unique mandate to create a viable Afghan state. I sense from his comments that he regards that idea as somewhat fanciful. We agree with the Committee that DFID cannot deliver a viable Afghan state on its own, but we do not believe that the objective is a redundant concept. On the contrary, the goal, shared by the Afghan Government and our international partners, is essential to securing Afghanistan’s long-term stability and future. In some respects, these are early days in the history of the country.
The goal is also consistent with DFID’s approach to working in fragile and conflict-affected states worldwide. The Prime Minister has said, and this encapsulates our thinking, that
“you only get real long-term development through aid if there is also a golden thread of stable government, lack of corruption, human rights”
“the rule of law”.
By contributing to the objective of the development of a viable Afghan state, we are helping to ensure that the Afghan people have a stake in their own future, through a Government that is more accountable and transparent, and capable of responding to their basic needs.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon mentioned community development councils, and DFID is working with the World Bank, other donor partners and the Afghan Government on the future role of the councils, including how best to integrate them into the government
structure below the level of central Government. The point he made is a valid one, and we are already taking steps to implement the sorts of things I sense he would like to see. We agree, of course, with the Committee that NGOs also play a vital role on the ground in Afghanistan, delivering key services and assistance to the Afghan people, and we will continue to support such essential work.
Finally, we welcome the Committee’s acknowledgment of the immense challenges that exist in delivering results in fragile and conflict-affected states such as Afghanistan, and also its appreciation of the efforts of DFID staff. Despite the challenges, we continue rigorously to ensure that DFID programmes are robust enough to deliver real results for the Afghan people, and that there is value for money for the UK taxpayer. I have been encouraged by many of the comments and questions we have heard this afternoon and, on behalf of DFID, I reassure the House that our commitment to this desperately poor country will continue for many years to come.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon, Liberal Democrat)
I thank the Minister for his most constructive response to what has been a good debate. Indeed, I thank everyone who has taken part.
In spite of the differences of emphasis, I believe that our report has been well received. It has provided a useful focus for those who are either too positive or too negative about the future. It is much better to be realistic, recognising the challenges and coming up with constructive recommendations on the understanding that there is a need to be flexible. Although we do not agree on everything, the Minister’s response demonstrates that we are on the same page as far as the overall objective is concerned.
I echo my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy in pointing out that we cannot say often enough to those British people who will listen that the idea that our engagement in Afghanistan has been a failure and has not made a positive difference is simply not true. It has made a huge difference. The situation is difficult. It is a difficult country and there are lots of challenges, but we have met so many people whose lives have been dramatically improved, and the statistics bear that out.
I am absolutely certain that the successors of the current Committee members in another Parliament will go back to Afghanistan in four or five years’ time. I hope that the fears will not have been realised and that some of the hopes will have been fulfilled. I hope that they still have a democracy and a functioning Parliament, but above all I hope that the position of women in Afghanistan is not as good as today but much better, or at least moving in the right direction. I repeat exactly the point that Nicola Blackwood made: for the Committee, that will be the litmus test of whether the engagement in Afghanistan has delivered real social and political change. We hope that it will have, and we believe that it can, and we absolutely agree that the UK Government have a key role to play. Regardless of the differences of emphasis, DFID in Afghanistan has our full support.
Question put and agreed to.