Commission for Africa

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 14th March 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development 3:31 pm, 14th March 2005

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Commission for Africa.

"African poverty and stagnation is the greatest tragedy of our time."

That is the conclusion of the Commission for Africa's report, which was published on 11 March. Seventeen commissioners appointed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—the majority of whom are Africans—spent the last year assessing evidence and reaching out to the continent of Africa. We talked and listened to ordinary Africans, politicians, leaders of regional institutions, business people, trade unionists, academics and religious and civil leaders. We were supported by an outstanding secretariat, to which I pay tribute, as I also do to many hon. Members on both sides of the House who took such an interest in the commission's work. The report is the richer for all those contributions.

We live in a world of increasing prosperity, in which more people around the world share every year, but one continent—Africa—has been left behind. This year, 4 million African children will die before their fifth birthday. Millions more who survive will not go to school and will grow up to lead lives of abject poverty and frequent hunger. As the Prime Minister said on Friday, that is the fundamental moral challenge of our generation.

The report is painfully honest. It tells the truth about the corrosive effects of corruption and conflict in Africa. It tells the truth about the things that Africa needs to change. It is equally honest about the past broken promises of rich countries and about the things that we must now do. It also recognises, however, that there are signs of hope. There is more democracy in Africa than before. More Governments are trying to do the right thing by their people. There are fewer conflicts. In some countries, economies are now growing strongly for the first time in years, and poor people are being lifted out of poverty. And best of all, Africans are taking responsibility for Africa, with the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development—NEPAD—having set out the continent's vision of its own future.

The report is clear that more ad hoc initiatives are not the answer. It sets out a comprehensive plan of action for implementation by Africa and by the rest of the world. It shows that Africa can absorb much more aid and can put it to good use to rebuild basic health care and education, to help countries scrap user fees that stop poor children going to school or poor families getting medical care, to assist in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and to reverse the decline in investment in water and sanitation. Aid to Africa should be doubled and made more reliable. The international finance facility should be launched immediately. For poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which need it, there should be 100 per cent. debt service cancellation as soon as possible.

The future of Africa lies, rightly, in the hands of its people and Governments. While Africa acts, as it must, to improve governance and tackle corruption, rich countries need to stop holding back Africa. We must make the international trade system fairer and end the damage that export subsidies are doing, while Africa increases its own capacity to trade. To do that, and to increase economic growth, Africa needs major investment in infrastructure. Leaving it to the private sector alone has not worked, so the report recommends a new $10 billion a year infrastructure fund, alongside proposals to improve the investment climate in Africa and to boost agriculture.

Finally, the report recommends support for the African Union's new leadership in peace and security and for Africa's increasingly important regional institutions, and it proposes a new monitoring mechanism to hold the world to account for implementing what the report tells us needs to be done.

The Government are committed to playing their part in responding to the report. We have already set out a timetable to reach the United Nations 0.7 per cent. aid target, and we are leading the world with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's proposals on the international finance facility and on multilateral debt relief. We are on course to double aid to Africa by 2010, and we will need to do more to support good governance and tackle corruption.

This is not a report, however, to the UK alone; it is a report to all of us. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is committed to putting the commission's recommendations before our G8 colleagues and to doing so with determination. To succeed, we will need to harness the energy of all those who share the report's vision.

Most important of all, this report shows us that something can be done. It tells us how, and what it will cost. We—this generation—can no longer claim that we did not know about the condition of Africa or what to do to help it to change its future. Our challenge now is to do it. If we fail to act, as Africans or as the rest of the world, those who will come after us will ask how it was that people who were so aware of the suffering and so capable of responding chose to look away. If, however, we do act, we will help to build a safer, more secure and more just world. The choice is ours, and it is by the decisions that we make that we will be judged.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and, after a busy and somewhat sleepless parliamentary week, the report of the Commission for Africa has given us all extensive reading over the weekend.

We welcome the report. It is a quality document that provides a thorough, detailed and perceptive analysis of the problems that confront Africa and that inhibit economic growth and poverty reduction. I acknowledge the Prime Minister's initiative in establishing the commission and commend his fellow commissioners and the secretariat for their contribution to the end product.

Although, in total, there are more people in Asia and south America who subsist on less than a dollar a day, only in Africa is poverty increasing and life expectancy falling. The continent suffers from disease, poor governance and conflict.This report has covered the ground comprehensively. Its analysis is excellent, but it risks being more of an academic work than a programme for action. Both sides of the House share the common objective of wanting to tackle global poverty. Both major parties would spend the same amount on international development. Our policies, in many respects, overlap, and that is how it should be. Inasmuch as we differ, it is about how we spend our money on poverty reduction, not about how much we spend on it.

We can therefore endorse many of the commission's recommendations and share its objectives on issues such as trade reform, debt cancellation and setting up an advocacy fund. As an analysis, it gets very high marks indeed, but as a blueprint for the effective change and progress that we all want to see in Africa, it has some serious shortcomings. It describes and meticulously costs everything that we should do, but not so much what Africans should do. There is no implementation plan to show in comparable detail how the extra billions will be disbursed, how this disbursement will be monitored to ensure accountability and transparency, and what measures will ever be taken against errant Governments. The fundamental question I ask the Secretary of State, therefore, is: what mechanism will there be to monitor and secure the quality of governance that Africa so desperately needs?

For such a lengthy and detailed report, the coverage given to the African Governments' own obligations to fulfil their side of the project is disappointingly thin. For example, the chapter on governance states that

"corruption is a systemic challenge facing many African leaders" and that the process of fighting it will be assisted by "increased transparency" by African Governments, but it offers no methodology for achieving this. Instead, the blame for corruption is heaped on those who offer bribes, but not at all on those who solicit them.

African Governments have had 30 or 40 years of independence to increase transparency. That is more than a generation and, indeed, longer than the life expectancy of many of their citizens. In the early years of independence, corruption might indeed have been fuelled from outside, but today it is almost exclusively home grown. It is characterised by a total indifference of the corrupt to the welfare of their fellow citizens.

Reference is of course made to the NEPAD African peer review mechanism as a way of addressing the problems of governance and corruption, but the portents are not good. On 24 February, the second phase of the NEPAD review on Kenya was launched. It was formally welcomed by the Kenyan Government as the

"commencement of intensive work on a process central to Kenya's search for greater democracy and economic growth."

The Kenyan Government said that they were

"aware that corruption could undermine" their "commitment to the process", but were

"working to stem the vice."

That statement was made only 11 days after Kenya's anti-corruption chief, John Githongo, was forced out of his job and the country following threats to his life made by Ministers whose corruption he was investigating. Can we thus be confident that the peer review mechanism will bring the Kenyan Government to book and pressurise them to reform?

According to the NEPAD secretariat, the peer review mechanism does not rate Governments according to a score card for governance, transparency or suitability for donor support. It says:

"It is a voluntary process based on self assessment."

That would suggest that neither Kenya nor Uganda, which is also to embark on the process, will be subject to much peer pressure at all. Does the Secretary of State thus agree with what we have been saying for months: the entire project will work only if all participant countries subscribe to a collective commitment to govern well? If so, by what effective mechanism will the likes of Robert Mugabe be certain to reach the high standards of government we seek?

A further disappointment is the report's recommendation that the majority of the funds to build or restore Africa's infrastructure should be channelled directly to Governments. Commissioner Anna Tibijuka made a telling comment in that respect when she described how the promise offered by Tanzania's independence was squandered after donor Governments spent a fortune on infrastructure projects that were either not completed because money was stolen, or wasted because they were irrelevant to the country's needs, such as a motorway that went from nowhere to nowhere. [Interruption.] Does the Secretary of State believe that the recommendation in our manifesto of channelling aid through non-governmental organisations and civic organisations, as well as Governments, would produce both greater accountability and the more cost-effective use of available funds? [Interruption.] To put it differently, if the Secretary of State believes that he is doing things well already, what will he do differently now that he has the benefit of the Commission for Africa report?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I say to the Front-Bench spokesman that I have encouraged Ministers to cut down their contributions during these statements. The hon. Gentleman has now spoken for longer than the Minister did, and he has gone beyond the five minutes that the Select Committee asked Opposition spokesmen to take.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I will therefore conclude, Mr. Speaker. I merely observe that the Secretary of State's statement was pretty thin.

It is no good the Secretary of State saying that the choice is ours, because the choice is also theirs: we need to be reassured that African Governments will properly join us in creating a better future for their people, because otherwise this will be another opportunity missed—although it is, by any measure, the best opportunity that we are ever likely to have.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the report, its analysis and its recommendations, although he somewhat undid what he said at the beginning of his remarks with what came subsequently.

The hon. Gentleman raised several substantive issues. He asked how the increased aid will be distributed. The answer is that it is for each country that raises additional aid to ensure that it is used for the purpose for which it is intended. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, we work through the British aid programme—his right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has described it as "extremely effective"—using a range of mechanisms, depending on our judgment of the country in which we are working. In some countries we work through Governments, who have the capacity and the ability to do the job on behalf of their people; in other countries—he mentioned Zimbabwe, where we do not work with the Government because of the monumental failure of governance in that country—we work through NGOs, in particular in our programme to fight HIV and AIDS.

Governance and corruption are important issues, but we have to recognise that we have moved on from the colonial era and that we must be careful about the way in which we respond. As I think the hon. Gentleman meant to say, the primary responsibility rests with the Governments of Africa themselves. The best mechanism for holding them to account are the peoples of the countries of Africa—

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

It is all very well the hon. Lady saying that, but it is the peoples of Africa who will hold their Governments to account, who will ask questions about where the resources have gone and who will provide the pressure on Governments to crack down on corruption. All I would say about the African peer review mechanism is that time will tell whether it proves to be effective in holding the Governments of Africa to account. We should give it time to work and welcome the fact that the African Union created the APRM in the first place.

To be honest, I do not think that Mr. Duncan meant this, but giving money to NGOs is not the way to deal with Africa's infrastructure problems. A large number of projects are awaiting effective funding; some have not happened because of problems experienced by the African Development Bank in disbursing the money, and others have not happened because they involve more than one country and it is difficult to secure agreements.

Even though one cannot simply lay one map on top of the other, it is instructive to compare the transport infrastructure of India with that of Africa. India's transport infrastructure links the country, whereas Africa's was designed to take raw materials from the place where they were found to the coast and away from the continent as quickly as possible. That is why, for example, to get from one part of west Africa to another, business people often have to fly to Europe and back, because it is the quickest way. That is a good example of why Africa needs a more effective infrastructure.

As for NGOs generally, the hon. Gentleman knows that in our rising aid programme the Government are increasing the financial support that we give to NGOs. We will work with a wide range of partners to ensure that Africa has the chance of a better future, but in the end it is for Africa to take the decisions and for us to do what we can to help.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement. The report of the Commission for Africa is to be welcomed. It contains many sensible recommendations, such as to invest in infrastructure and higher education, to tackle corruption in Africa and to remove trade barriers. It rightly highlights the importance of predictable aid flows, which applies not only to Africa but to the middle-income countries whose funds were cut by the Department when moneys were transferred to the reconstruction of Iraq.

The report prompts several questions, which I hope the Secretary of State will be able to answer. Why have no target dates been set by which the rich countries should meet their 0.7 per cent. target? Why is climate change—widely recognised to be one of the greatest global threats—hardly mentioned in the report? Why has so little progress been made in repatriating the funds salted away in UK banks by Abacha, for example? The right hon. Gentleman himself highlighted that issue in a speech to the money laundering conference three years ago.

UK arms are being used in 10 of Africa's conflicts. Will the Secretary of State say what progress has been made since the Foreign Secretary announced in September last year that the Government would support an international arms trade treaty? Russia is to hold the G8 presidency in 2006. What agreement has the UK secured, or what assurances have the Government been given, that Russia will pick up the UK aid baton and run with it? What will the two high-calibre individuals appointed to review progress do if that baton is dropped in future years?

The report has many strengths, but its weaknesses include the number of recommendations and the lack of specific timetables for implementation. A terrible burden now rests on the shoulders of the Secretary of State, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, as they must help to turn those aspirations into reality. If they fail, Africa's terrible cycle of poverty, sickness and death will never be broken.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the report. Taking each of his points in turn, he is absolutely right about predictability—not only do we need increased aid but it must be more reliable; otherwise African Governments cannot use it both to employ teachers, doctors and nurses and to buy AIDS drugs for the long term. On the 0.7 per cent. UN target, as he will be aware, an increasing number of countries have set timetables or target dates, including the UK Government, who did so last summer for the first time in history.

On the repatriation of funds, we are in the process of ratifying the UN convention and we have strengthened our money-laundering legislation. We may well have to take further steps, as the Prime Minister made clear when responding to the report on Friday, and we must make sure that we are more effective in returning stolen funds. On the arms control treaty, we are currently looking at the range of measures that such a treaty should cover, and we will talk to other countries about that. On Russia's presidency of the G8 from 2006, in all honesty, the time to have a discussion with that country is when 2005 is out of the way and we know what progress we have been able to make. The Government have taken a responsibility upon themselves in establishing the commission, and I welcome the fact that Africa will be a priority of our G8 presidency this year. I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the responsibility does not rest with the Government alone—it is a responsibility for the whole world.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Where is the link between arms sales and military action? Was my right hon. Friend astonished, like me, when on "Any Questions?" this Friday, our colleague the Minister for Children talked about Sierra Leone, where life expectancy is 34 and going down? We took military action there about four years ago, so why has there not been an improvement? Is not the failure to follow up a failure by the Department for International Development?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

With respect to my hon. Friend, I do not accept that at all. Following our military action in Sierra Leone—a country that has suffered more than any other from conflict and brutality—we now have a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the Government there. We have provided practical support in the first instance to give the Royal Sierra Leonean armed forces and the police the capacity to provide internal security and to protect the borders, so that when UNAMSIL—the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone—eventually withdraws, the peace and stability that that country now enjoys can be maintained by the Government. There remains one instance of serious corruption, and we have repeatedly made it clear to the Sierra Leonean Government that unless they tackle the problem of corruption the people will not see the benefit of the peace and stability that the action of the British Government has helped to bring about.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I have great respect for the Secretary of State, but I take issue with his comment that people in the poorest countries in the world can somehow influence bad Governments and deal with fraud, as they have low levels of literacy and poor communications. The donor countries will clearly have far more influence in tackling bad Governments and fraud. What sanctions will the Secretary of State impose if his idea of the people themselves influencing the situation does not work?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I do not accept the argument that the people of the countries of Africa do not have an important role to play. Kenya is a good example, because there was a change of Government there, partly because people wanted something different. They will be disappointed, however, by the lack of achievement so far. We must be careful not to talk down the growing willingness and capacity of civil society, independent institutions, trade unions, non-governmental organisations and others to play a part in calling Governments to account, as that is certainly part of the solution.

We cannot, with great respect, expect to do the job as donors, however well intentioned we are. What we can do, in answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, is ensure that we use our aid money in a way that protects it and the purpose for which it is intended. That is why, in answer to the earlier question, I indicated that we use a range of methods, according to our own assessment of the capacity of the Government in question, to make sure that the increasing aid that we are giving goes to the people and for the purpose for which it was intended.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Labour, Bridgend

I have not had a chance to read the whole report—its size indicates the magnitude of the task. I want to pick up just one point. On page 385—[Laughter]—I have not got that far yet, but I happened to pick up this point—the report states:

"In each recipient country, the government and donors should set up monitoring groups to assess the quality of donor assistance and co-ordination."

I wholeheartedly agree with that. Sierra Leone has been mentioned. I know from my own visits there that the Chinese are very active and are trying to develop economic sub-regions to focus their aid. To what extent have our Government been involved with the Chinese in trying to develop a coherent programme for Sierra Leone, and how quickly does my right hon. Friend think that system can be instituted across Africa?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I know my hon. Friend takes an extremely close interest in events in Sierra Leone. When I visited about a year ago, one of the meetings in which I took part was all the donors meeting round the table, together with the Government, to do exactly what the Commission for Africa report recommends, in order to ensure that the donor effort in Sierra Leone works with the Government to try and achieve the changes in that desperately poor country, which has suffered so much, to help bring about sustainable long-term change. If people are to invest in Sierra Leone, which is what that country needs, it will need infrastructure, it will need to be able to convince people that it is right to invest, and as I said earlier, it will need to tackle the problem of corruption. In the conversations that I had with ordinary Sierra Leoneans during that visit, every person I spoke to raised the problem of corruption. It is a very important issue and it must be resolved by the Government of Sierra Leone.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I have a very high regard for the Secretary of State. He is doing an excellent job. Does he believe that what is required is fair trade for Africa—that is, a change of policies in respect of trade, particularly in the European Union—and good governance? Leaders like Robert Mugabe are not an example of good governance. A large number of members of the Commonwealth are currently in the UK, taking part in the 54th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seminar. Has the right hon. Gentleman had the opportunity of meeting the representatives from Africa who, I believe, would be wonderful ambassadors to their political parties and Governments in respect of what the report, with which we all agree, is saying to the world?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I have not had that opportunity, although my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development is meeting that group on Wednesday. If there were any opportunity between now and then for me to meet them, I would very happy to make the time available, if that were possible to arrange.

On the hon. Gentleman's main point, I agree with him. Zimbabwe stands as a very bad example of governance. The country has suffered grievously as a result of the failure of governance. On trade, of course the hon. Gentleman is right. The report makes a powerful case for why we must take steps to enable Africa to earn and to trade its way out of poverty. Every one of us knows that in the end, that will be the engine of economic development on the sub-continent, and therefore the means whereby people will be lifted out of poverty.

Photo of John McFall John McFall Chair, Treasury Committee

I warmly welcome the report, especially the sections on good governance and corruption. The continent has seen economic growth and life expectancy largely go down rather than up over the past 30 years. One aspect that my right hon. Friend has not mentioned is civic society. I have friends in civic society in Lusaka—Pete Henriot, a Jesuit, and his African colleagues—who are working to ensure that the Government listen to them and to hold the Government to account. Can my right hon. Friend suggest what initiative we can take, not to demand action for Africa, but to help foster good relations with civic society, so that the Governments of those countries can be held to account?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of civic society. Effective governance requires that Governments are capable of doing the job and that the public and civil society organisations have expectations of the Government. In our development programme, we can be very proud of the fact that we are not only working a great deal with Governments to help them build their capacity, because in the end that is the only way that we will deal with the problem, but supporting a wide range of civil society organisations, because that will enable them to be a stronger voice on behalf of the people and communities whom they represent. They need to be able to say to Government, "This is what you should be doing", and to ask, "What has happened to the money? Why aren't you increasing expenditure on health and education?"—in other words, to say all the things that we take for granted in political debate in this country as the means by which Governments are held to account. Africa needs exactly the same.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

May I put it to the Secretary of State that his response to my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan was uncharacteristically disappointing, and give him an opportunity to put the record straight? Surely it is not colonialist or imperialist to criticise corruption in Kenya or abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe and surely our excellent high commissioner to Nairobi was absolutely correct robustly to point out that even the fresh Government in Kenya have been very weak on tackling corruption.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood what I said in reply to his hon. Friend. Of course it is not colonialist to criticise corruption—we are at one on that. I was simply pointing out the implication that it is solely down to us to sort out the problem, because—let us be truthful—it is not. That is why we have to recognise, first, that the steps that Africa itself is taking to tackle the problems of corruption and to promote good governance represent a change compared with the past; and secondly, that, as I said in response to two previous questions, the people who will ultimately do that will be the people of those countries themselves. We can help the process, but we cannot do it all. In the end, people will judge not only what we do but what happens in Africa, and that should be a matter for the people of those countries.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent piece of work—his personal commitment has made it a very fruitful document, although it remains the start of this venture.

On corruption, I wholeheartedly agree that the people of Africa themselves will ultimately resolve the matter. However, some elements of corruption have an international aspect, and the people of certain African states are not currently capable of dealing with that. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that as we start this work we should continue the discussion and dialogue on the reform of international institutions so as to hold out the prospect of establishing an international corruption court comparable to the International Criminal Court. That would signal to the kleptocrats who have robbed Africa, and denied their own people, of so many resources that one day they may be held to account.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about ensuring that there are internationally effective mechanisms to ensure that money that is stolen and flees the continent of Africa can be returned. That means, first, that each individual country must have in place effective mechanisms for doing that and, secondly, that we must ask ourselves collectively whether they actually work. Our money laundering legislation was not strong enough, so we strengthened it through the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We need to continue to reflect on our experiences and, if the system does not work, to find more effective means of ensuring that such money is returned to where it belongs.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee

The report is excellent, but the test will be success at the G8. It behoves all of us who want the report to work to lobby colleagues in G8 countries. Will the Secretary of State help us with that by providing a bullet-point summary of what the Government hope to achieve at the G8? What does he hope that the minutes will show after the G8 conference? Could such a summary be provided in the G8 languages, because we must carry many others with us? The debate is not between ourselves but between us and the G8. We need to be able to lobby those countries, otherwise the Government and the commission could have put in all that work only for it to be a lost opportunity unless it translates into action in the summer.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is right about the big test being to turn the recommendations into action, especially by the G8 at the Gleneagles summit. In essence, the Government want, first, a doubling of aid to Africa. That means persuading countries, which may not be entirely convinced, that more aid will work effectively. The analysis in the report is clear that absorptive capacity exists and that properly used aid undoubtedly makes a difference.Secondly, we want to reach agreement on up to 100 per cent. multilateral debt relief for all the reasons that everybody understands, not least because debt relief provides predictable sources of finance. Thirdly, we want to create the political space to allow the trade talks in Hong Kong in December to open up trade on a freer and fairer basis so that Africa can trade and earn its way out of poverty.

Those are the three big issues and the hon. Gentleman is right that we will all have to work hard to persuade other countries that may not currently be persuaded or those in which there is not much domestic pressure to do any of that. If there is no domestic pressure, we must create international pressure.

Photo of Derek Wyatt Derek Wyatt Labour, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on their work. Will my right hon. Friend please pass on our thanks to Myles Wickstead and his team?

It is salutary to remember that, in 1964, Africa's GDP was the same as China's. How things have changed 41 years on. One pan-African solution would be to use our three cultural battalions—the British Council, the Open university and the BBC World Service—to create an open primary school for Africa. Where is that on my right hon. Friend's priority list?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expression of appreciation to Myles Wickstead, Nick Stern and others who were responsible for writing the report. His point about the 1960s is interesting because at the time of the process of independence, the world was more worried about what would happen in Asia than what would happen in Africa. The past two generations have turned that concern on its head.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal about using the three institutions that he mentioned to increase opportunities for education. From my visit to Africa, I know how much those who have access to British Council facilities rely on them. However, the first priority is to ensure that the remaining 40 million or so children in Africa who do not go to primary school get into a classroom, while working on other ideas such as the one my hon. Friend suggested.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, may I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, sentiments and the report, which urges a huge increase in aid donations? The Secretary of State will know that every United Kingdom Government have failed to commit 0.7 per cent. of gross national income since they signed up to the UN aid target in 1970. New House of Commons Library statistics show that more than half the UK underspend, on both past and planned development assistance—worth £42 billion—is by the current Government. When will the UK finally fulfil its promises on aid that every single Government in the past 35 years have broken?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that this Government are the first ever to commit to a timetable for reaching the 0.7 per cent. target. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced last summer, we have set a date of 2013. The hon. Gentleman looks surprised at that. One of the reasons that we are in the current position is that, for 18 years, the official development assistance GNI figure for Britain fell from 0.51 per cent., where the Labour Government left it in 1979, to the 0.26 per cent. that we inherited when we were elected in 1997. That is not the way to go.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

I greatly welcome the report, which underlines the commitment of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to Africa and international development. My right hon. Friend referred to this country's role in the G8. Does he accept that we need to pursue the same issues later in the year in our European Union presidency and emphasise our commitment, especially to education and health, the lack of which is currently so damaging in Africa?

Furthermore, although we often emphasise the failing countries and the problems in Africa, the Secretary of State rightly said in his statement that there were some success stories and encouraging signs there. Does he agree that we need to do more to praise those examples of what some countries are doing?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the European Union playing a part. That is why one of the issues that we are discussing is a new EU aid target, which will contribute to the pressure to be put on the G8 countries before Gleneagles. He also made an important point about examples of success: Africa is a many-splendoured continent. There are problems there, and we referred to some countries in that regard in earlier exchanges, but other countries are making remarkable progress. Mozambique is an example that illustrates the importance of peace and stability. Having been through a terrible conflict, it is now in the process of reducing poverty and has a number of donors backing the plan that its Government have drawn up to do that. That shows the potential that exists in Africa as well as the problems, and it is important that we focus on both.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

The Secretary of State is to be congratulated. This is an excellent report, as was the report from the Brandt commission more than 30 years ago. Many people in this House and outside know the problems of Africa; they also know the solutions. Will the Secretary of State tell us what is new this time? How will things be different?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

One thing that is new is that it is the Prime Minister of the country holding the presidency of the G8 who has established the commission, and who has chosen to take it upon himself and our presidency of the G8 to make Africa one of the two priorities. That was not the case at all with the Brandt commission. That is one difference. The second is that we now have an opportunity to do something about this at a time when a process of change is beginning in Africa; that was not the case when the Brandt report was produced. There is now also a greater willingness on the part of Africa to say, "We are responsible for some of the problems of the continent, and this is what we are going to do about them." An example of that would be the recent events in Togo, where, following the death of the president, the constitution was subverted. With one voice, Africa said, "No, you cannot do that", and the people involved rowed back from their position. That is a significant test of a commitment to good government. So there are signs of hope, and there is a greater willingness to recognise the scale of the problem. We have the capacity to act, and it can be done. That is different from the situation at the time of the Brandt report but, as I said in my statement, in the end, we shall be judged by what we do.

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster PPS (Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Solicitor General), Law Officers' Department

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his comments, but I urge him not to accept that corruption, however bad, should limit the amount of our aid. May I remind him that Lord Soper once said that if corruption halved aid, that would be a reason to give twice as much?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I agree with my hon. Friend. Kenya is a good example of that, because, while we are very critical of the failure to make progress on tackling corruption there, our aid is helping to make a real difference in that country. An example would be the newly elected Government's decision in 2002 to abolish primary school fees. We and other donors helped to pay for that. As a result, there are now a million more children in school in Kenya than there were before. So we need to get the balance right. We must ensure that our aid is provided in a way that protects it from corruption. At the same time, however, our high commissioner in Kenya has been absolutely fearless in pointing out the nature of the problem and the reasons that the Government there need to do something about it.

Photo of Julie Kirkbride Julie Kirkbride Conservative, Bromsgrove

The Secretary of State upbraided me earlier when I suggested that democracy in Africa might put a brake on some of the corruption and poor governance there. I wonder whether he has gone back on that view in subsequent exchanges, and whether he recognises that there is a problem in that regard. Should not Her Majesty's Government be more actively engaged in these matters, so as to provide a better deal for Africa and for western taxpayers? Should not they positively incentivise those countries that are prepared to put in better Governments and to tackle corruption? That could result in a big difference between those countries that succeed, with western help, and those that do not. The citizens in the latter might then boot out their Government in a subsequent election.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I accept that point. The hon. Lady will no doubt be aware that, in the partnership agreements that we have with a number of African countries, we jointly draw up benchmarks to measure the progress that we expect to be made as a result of the partnership. They include benchmarks on governance, which arise out of commitments that the Governments themselves have set. I attach particular importance to that. I was not trying to make the point that we have no responsibility; I was trying to make it absolutely clear that, ultimately, I see the responsibility lying with those countries and their peoples. Of course we can support that process, however, and that is already reflected in our aid programme.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to improve the economic viability of African countries, it is important to try to improve the higher education infrastructure as well as basic health and education? Has he had time yet to consider the requests that I made a little while ago to examine the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, based in Cape Town, and the proposal to try to extend that to a network of mathematical institutes in other African countries? That has been promoted by some academics in my constituency.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of higher education. That is one of the points that comes out strongly, as she will have seen, from the commission report. Last week, for example, I was able to announce a significant increase in funding for scientific research and development as part of DFID's research programme. As she will be aware, we have also revitalised the higher education links scheme, particularly to give a greater focus to science and technology and to the poorest countries in the world, including those in Africa. Certainly, I shall reflect further on her points about mathematics. It is important that we encourage, through a variety of means, the development of education at all levels, while being unapologetic, as we should be, about focusing the bulk of our aid programme on primary education, as that is the fundamental building block. If children are not going to school where they ought to be, it is difficult to improve their lives.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

Some 20 years ago, my hon. Friends—I use the term deliberately—the Members for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I made our first visit to South Africa. One of the friends we met there, Bridget Collins, now works in an AIDS clinic in Khayelitsha, a shanty town that was hardly in existence then but is now home for 1.5 million people, such is the extent of the problems with which the South African Government are dealing. If the focus of our discussion is the effectiveness of the international community voice, what reassurance can the Secretary of State give Bridget that the international consensus on the origins of AIDS is having an impact on the internal debate in South Africa, which has threatened to hold up the delivery of support to sufferers of that terrible illness?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The international consensus is clear. We are absolutely firm in making the case for effective treatment. As he will be aware, policy has changed in South Africa because of the force of that argument, notwithstanding some people's views. There have been problems in relation to turning that change of policy into practical help on the ground, as he will be only too aware. We will continue to do what we have done up to now: to say that if we are to beat this disease, we must be honest and open about its causes and how people can protect themselves. We must make available the means of protection, including condoms; get treatment to people who need it, which is partly about the price of drugs and partly about having the health infrastructure, doctors and nurses to do the testing and to administer medicines and so on; and continue to do so resolutely. We can see from countries such as Uganda, which has managed to bring down the infection rate, that strong leadership, combined with all those other measures, really can make a difference. We need to give support to everyone, and the fight against HIV/AIDS is a particular focus of our programme in South Africa.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

In an earlier response, the Secretary of State rightly drew attention to the infrastructure problems of Africa, and pointed out that all the major transport links exist to take mineral or agricultural riches from Africa to the coast for export to western Europe and the United States. I welcome the commission's document. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that the west has made an awful lot of money and riches out of the continent of Africa over the past 200 years. In our support for African development and future economic developments, will he assure me that the International Monetary Fund will no longer descend on African countries insisting on mass privatisation and the imposition of market economies, which do a great deal to damage the agricultural infrastructure and create more rural unemployment and urban shanty towns, and that instead we will develop African internal trade and markets?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The experience of structural adjustment in the 1980s was an unhappy one for Africa, as the report makes clear. On the other hand, we must be honest about what is needed if things are to change, and one of the things that Africa needs is investment. That is partly an issue of the climate that Africa itself creates for investment, which must include tackling corruption and establishing an independent legal system. How long does it take to establish a company? I believe that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo it takes an average of 263 days. That is not a great incentive for investment in the DRC, which has a good many other problems as well.

Part of the issue is what Africa does, and part of it is what the rest of the world does to give Africa an opportunity to trade and earn its way out of poverty. Only if both of those happen will Africa be able, in its own way, to reap the benefits of economic development.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I associate myself entirely with what was said by both the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan about the need to encourage good governance and get rid of corruption in at least certain African countries. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is something that the developed world could do, namely end its obscene practice of subsidising its own agricultural industries? Will he confirm that the developed world subsidises its farmers to the tune of seven times what it gives, in cash or kind, to the developing countries in overseas aid? If that could be at least reversed, there is a better chance that the increased wealth of the world and the advancing engineering and medical technology could be used to stop the hideous obscenity of 8,000 African children dying every day from preventable water-borne diseases.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, absolutely right. It is an obscenity, and he has given a powerful reason for why it must change. It is no good telling Africa to participate in the world economy if we make it difficult for it to participate. That is why reducing the EU's export subsidies, which have already fallen by 70 per cent. in the last 10 years, is a step in the right direction, and why the commitment to an end date for all export subsidies agreed last July is so important. Only in the negotiations will we see that reach fruition, but it is one of the most important steps that we can take to help Africa create a better future for its people.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

My right hon. Friend said in his statement that there was more democracy in Africa now than before. That is welcome, but is he aware that democracy is about much more than votes? The civic society provisions mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr. McFall are part of that, as are civil liberties. How do we help to build a grass-roots Africa? Tackling poverty is part of creating conditions in which people can implement democratic provisions, but should we not be helping people to make advances in their democracy, rather than imposing sanctions and specifying no-go areas for aid?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

We need to do exactly those things, and they are already a feature of our aid programme. We are working with a wide range of civil, voluntary and community organisations to build local capacity for the holding to account of local and national governments. That is a fundamental part of improving governance, and we need to do more of it. We also need to encourage Governments in Africa to engage in better dialogue with civil and community organisations. As I think every Member recognises, that is vital to making democracies function as they grow and develop.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence)

Does the Secretary of State agree that by their works shall ye know them? He will be aware that one commissioner, Prime Minister Zenawi, has led Ethiopia for 15 years. Today, however, a Foreign Office profile says

"The human rights situation in Ethiopia is poor. Detention without trial is frequent, and often open-ended; prison conditions are bad and torture widespread . . . Journalists . . . who are critical of the Ethiopian Government remain at risk of arbitrary arrest and detention."

Only last month, President Mkapa of Tanzania was lauding Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Does the Secretary of State not think that the report would be more credible if those people put their own houses in order before pronouncing on how things should be done? Does he agree with Kenya's former Finance Minister, a very honest man, who told the International Development Committee a few years ago "Don't give us any more money; ask us what we have done with the money you have already given us"?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I do not agree with the last point, because I can see—as the hon. Gentleman can—the impact that Britain's aid money is having in a number of the countries to which he referred, including Ethiopia and Kenya. Nor do I agree in any way with what President Mkapa had to say on Zimbabwe. Our partnership agreement with the Ethiopian Government—Miss Kirkbride raised this point earlier—refers to the steps that they propose to take to address the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred, such as those relating to human rights. Indeed, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi himself acknowledges the existence of such problems. The question is whether the Ethiopian Government are taking steps to change the situation for the better. That is the basis on which we should judge such countries, while at the same time recognising that Ethiopia has a lot of very poor people and that it cannot feed its population. In such circumstances, is it not right to give support to those people through an increasing aid programme, which is precisely what we are doing?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Does the Secretary of State agree that the important issue is not whether the British Government support the commission's robust recommendations—after all, our Prime Minister will take them to the G8 and to the EU presidency—but whether other world leaders fall in behind them? Does he also agree that if these recommendations are implemented by other G8 and EU leaders, that will mark a step change in the rich world's relations with Africa and enable a much-delayed but still vitally necessary wind of change to blow through Africa? What steps are the commissioners taking—especially those from other G8 countries—to get in touch with parliamentarians in their Parliaments, so that they debate this issue before the G8 summit and put pressure on their Governments to deliver when that summit comes?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

On that last point, the commissioners will travel round their own countries and others, presenting the commission's recommendations, arguing the case and encouraging people to think about the proposals and what their own countries need to do. This is an argument that needs to be won, and in a sense I come back to where I started. We now have an opportunity—a moment—because the circumstances are right and we have the understanding and the means, as a world, to do something about the situation. The real test—if we accept the analysis—will be deciding what we do about it, which is why this year is so important. If there is the will and the commitment, we have the chance by the end of the year to reach agreement on doubling aid, on multilateral debt relief and on enabling Africa to trade its way out of poverty. If we can achieve that, this commission report will have been extremely worth while.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

May I ask, as somebody who used to work for the Kenya Treasury in the years before it was looted by Arap Moi and his associates, why the Government are undermining the drive against corruption by exempting British businesses from the obligation to declare the identity of their commission agents and financial intermediaries when they apply for Export Credits Guarantee Department assistance and other assistance?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I do not know the answer to that question and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on it. All that I would say is that we have taken a number of steps to try to tackle the problem of corruption, including signing up to the UN convention, passing the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, making it an offence to offer a bribe—even if the offer is made abroad—and ensuring that, if evidence is brought forward, the person in question is prosecuted here in the UK. So we should recognise the steps that the Government have already taken, but as I said in answer to an earlier question, we will need to reflect further on whether additional steps need to be taken to ensure that we have the most effective means in place to enable the returning of any funds that are looted to the people from whom they have been stolen—namely, the people of Africa.