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Africa

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove 5:38 pm, 30th March 2009

My right hon. Friend has a lot of experience in these matters and he is absolutely right. The sad thing is that the remedy of bed nets costs little compared with some of the high-cost drugs needed to tackle other diseases and plagues.

I turn quickly to the impact of climate change and soil exhaustion, which has not yet been mentioned in this debate. In the Sahel region and elsewhere, major problems are caused by climate change, over-cropping and overgrazing. Those problems will undoubtedly result in a reduction of the ability of the land to maintain and produce food for the populations of those areas. There are many other impacts across the whole continent. However, the new factor, which should surely be at the centre of the response from the Government and this country now, is the worldwide recession. The Secretary of State referred to the loss of markets and the decline in international prices for some of the agricultural and mineral products of the African continent.

However, there is also the drop, which has already started, in the support given by rich nations to development in Africa; the cut in aid announced by the Italian Government is perhaps the first and most obvious example. Furthermore, there is the parallel situation that we face in this country, given the declining value of the pound against both the dollar and the euro. Those factors lead to a reduction in African nations' purchasing power for health and investment—a drop in Government income, and in the profitability of trade and industrial concerns in those countries leads to a drop in taxation income. The Secretary of State also rightly mentioned the loss of remittances.

There can be not only a two-way but a four-way hit for many of the African nations. Such issues present huge challenges to their leadership; continuing to provide security for the people and an environment that can deliver health, education and prosperity for all citizens is an almost impossible task. Those nations need help individually and collectively, and I ask the Government to give assurances about how the United Kingdom will work, both bilaterally—one-to-one with the different nations who need it—and multilaterally.

I also ask the Government to acknowledge the successes. Please let us not develop a series of policies that reward only failure in Africa; this issue is not all about emergency aid and peace initiatives, important though those are. Even in Ghana, there is drastic poverty, together with serious malaria infestations and an absence of sanitation and drainage in large parts of the country. These countries must not be forgotten in the rush to the emergency situations.

I want the Government to give an assurance that they will safeguard the United Kingdom's aid contribution. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Mr. Lewis, will wind up the debate, because he was kind enough to answer a question that I asked in International Development questions, when he said very robustly that the Government intend to maintain their support. Can he explain how he will do that if the purchasing power of Britain's aid budget is dropping by 30 per cent.? If the United Kingdom's output dropped by 1.6 per cent. in the last quarter of last year, that means that 0.7 per cent. of GDP will be a smaller sum of money when we achieve that target. It would be somewhat ironic, when a new President in the United States is turning things round in US development policy and budgets, if European Union countries, particularly the United Kingdom, were to find that they were making a shrinking contribution. Have the Government, in bringing forward huge rescue packages to get the UK economy going again, given any consideration to top-slicing some of that—let us say by 0.7 per cent.—to facilitate such recovery in African and other developing nations?

I hope that the Minister can pick up on another point of great importance: capacity building in the African nations. Governance and the development of civic society have already been mentioned. I am sure that he will have heard, at least informally, from John Battle, who has regaled me with his view that what the countries of Africa need is more accountants. That is not the most obvious deficit that one would envisage, but in order to have good taxation policy and good financial control, good accountants are needed. Capacity building is about sending people not only to dig wells but to train others in the basic infrastructure of good governance.

Will the Government tackle the vulture funds? Many HIPCs—heavily indebted poor countries—find that their debt has been forgiven as a result of Gleneagles and other initiatives but that their inward investment is still blocked because of the action of vulture funds in buying up the debt that they have left behind at a discounted rate and pursuing that through the courts. I believe that Ms Keeble has a ten-minute Bill on the issue, but it would be good to hear from the Minister that he is looking hard at it and will consider introducing legislation to tackle it.

Then there is the question of how the United Kingdom will exercise its influence through the European Union in relation to the extended World Trade Organisation dialogue and resolving the issues of the Doha round. A key point is empowering the African Governments to be able to punch their weight and exercise their power in that negotiation when it comes and as it goes on. Having raised that with the Department for International Development, I was disappointed to hear about the miserly allocation made towards empowering African Governments. We had one person seconded to Geneva to assist the developing nations in advancing their case at the WTO. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a picture of a more robust and wholehearted response.

It is widely acknowledged that Africa will miss the millennium development goals that have been set. It will therefore be necessary to redouble the support for tackling the health deficit in HIV and AIDS, for instance. In the past two years, the South African Government have finally acknowledged what the risks and solutions could be as regards that scourge in South Africa. With the incoming Government in the United States, we have seen a change of heart there which means that there will be a more robust response. I would welcome a reaffirmation from the Minister that, just at the moment when those two important influences on tackling vigorously the problem of AIDS in Africa are coming round in the right direction, he will not be deflected by voices calling for a retreat from doing so.

On malaria, my right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce mentioned the value of nets—a very simple and practical solution. The need for sanitation and clean drinking water is clearly vital in many nations given the existence of other widespread diseases, particularly those which are water-borne. I want to hear the Minister say that he will not allow a focus on particular nations in Africa that face extraordinary problems divert him and the Government from continuing to support sanitation and drinking water programmes in some of the other African nations. We must not finish up with an aid programme that rewards the failures.

Several comments have been made about peacekeeping. I very much welcome what the Secretary of State said about the UK's intentions in that respect.

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