Overseas Aid

Part of Supplementary Estimates 1985–86 – in the House of Commons at 6:12 pm on 17th December 1985.

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Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells , Hertford and Stortford 6:12 pm, 17th December 1985

I agree with much of the analysis made by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) of the position in Africa. There is good and bad news. I wish to speak in a balanced way about the aid budget. We must, therefore, consider the positive as well as the negative side.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development has done an extremely good job, which is recognised by most nations, in conducting the aid programme in relation to the famine in Africa. Much of that aid programme has gone through the EEC. I have found, as the House will be aware, much difficulty in obtaining information from my right hon. Friend on what was being done by the EEC with over half the money spent on Africa. I was fortunate enough to go to Brussels and find out much of the information for myself.

One of the gratifying things that I discovered is that my right hon. Friend, almost unknown to the country and the House, contributed not just a Hercules in Ethiopia where the RAF has done such sterling work, but chartered a Hercules in a joint programme organised by the EEC delegate in the Sudan. It was used to carry food from the east of Sudan to the west of Darfur. That was referred to eloquently by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). The rains had come and lorries could no longer pass across the desert where there are no roads. The refugees from Chad and the Sudanese on the western border of Darfur were starving because the European and American aid could not be transported there despite my right hon. Friend's efforts to have the railway rehabilitated. That was the only alternative way of carrying the grain from east to west.

My right hon. Friend contributed a charter Hercules. The Italians, the French, the Dutch and the Germans also contributed an aeroplane. In that way, the EEC transported the grain and food, including American food aid, to the west. That is a programme and achievement of which we should be proud, and we should congratulate my right hon. Friend on it.

I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on his defence of the aid budget. He managed to see that it was not reduced, as the Government had planned. He has always tried to conduct the aid programme to provide effective and efficient economic assistance to the poorest countries.

I must come to the other side of the story to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has referred. I wish to reiterate the points in some detail. They relate to how our efforts in Africa have been funded within the aid budget. The members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee have been playing a game of blind man's buff with the Overseas Development Administration. We are sometimes faced with a budget which is 30 per cent. unallocated when presented to Parliament. That raises the important point of whether Parliament has any control over the budget. Most of that sum is included in the bilateral programme. The matter becomes important when the Government try to hide behind verbiage such as: The emergency aid so far provided has not involved cutting"— we must consider carefully the words used any planned development activities in the remainder of the aid programme. That beggars belief, because on the most recent aid statistics published by the Department emergency aid represents £95 million. It is part of the bilateral country programme of £434 million from which much of the aid comes. That means that about 20 per cent. of the budget has been extraordinarily spent without affecting—let me use the words carefully—"any planned development activities."

Before my right hon. Friend says that at least half that sum was spent by the EEC and, therefore, did not come out of the bilateral programme, we will accept that the figure was 10 per cent. Those are huge figures and it is a huge proportion. If that is the case, the House should ask how the aid budget is being planned. What are the long-term development plans which have not been affected? Is it because we are budgeting from month to month that we are not committing the money to the long-term agricultural developments about which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe spoke? Is it that the slippage is so great that we cannot spend it properly on planned long-term developments? We have always spent the complete aid budget, even when there was no emergency or contingency. The aid budget is spent on long-term development objectives when slippage occurs. It is not planned formally because one cannot foresee the events that will take place in a year. The fact that the money is not invested in long-term development is important, and I shall give the House two examples of where it has not been invested.

The money has not been invested in the United Nations development programme. We have cut severely our contribution, which is voluntary and not ratcheted to GDP. The programme undertakes the initial investigation into long-term agricultural projects which may eventually produce an agricultural answer to the famine-struck regions of Africa. Therefore, to argue that we are not affecting long-term development projects by taking money from other projects is a sleight of hand. It is unworthy of my right hon. Friend the Minister to use that argument, and I hope that we shall persuade him to desist from deploying it. It undermines the credibility of his argument.

I conferred with my friends in the Caribbean about cuts in the aid budget. The Minister went to hear their arguments on 1 August at the request of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. They find that the aid budget is rigid, and that they cannot spend it properly on long-term developments because of the way in which it is presented, and they want a discussion on how that can be improved. The unallocated section is defended, with some justification, by my right hon. Friend the Minister and the ODA because they need flexibility within the budget to take account of the difficulties of disbursing that aid. However, they cannot have a flexible approach from Parliament, and administer aid inflexibly into the host countries in such a way that we do not get economic development but receive a minus quantity of good will from them. There must be something wrong with the administration of our aid if that is the net result. That is also an illustration of the way in which the aid budget is being cut by the diversion of money to famine in Africa. Caribbean countries have certainly suffered because they have not had the additional money which would otherwise be available through the bilateral programme.

It is essential for the credibility of the aid programme that at least £100 million—that is not a large sum, considering the whole sum—is put back into the aid budget as additional money to handle this serious crisis. We should also use it to begin to invest in the research, development, management and technical co-operation necessary to find the way to enable the people of the Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad to sustain their population and cattle in those arid areas. They can succeed in that.

The ODA and the EEC have two excellent research projects in the western Sudanese areas devoted to that. Would it not be a magnificent gesture by the Government to give additional money and resources to enable those programmes to ascertain how we can help other people to help themselves and in that way to help us?