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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:02 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South 6:02 pm, 30th March 2009

I apologise for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches; I have an engagement which I regret to say I cannot get out of.

I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said, especially about the need to build strong institutions in Africa. On the point made by Mr. Simpson about the tension that might exist between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I was a Minister in both Departments, and although there was a little bit of tension occasionally during my time, by and large we worked extremely well together and always pulled in the same direction. I doubt that that has changed all that much. When I was the Minister responsible for Africa at the Foreign Office, I enjoyed a good relationship with the then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn.

Andrew Stunell is right to remind us to bear in mind that Africa is not one country, but 50 countries, that it is an extremely diverse continent and that we should beware of generalisations, although there are certain issues common to many parts of the country, which he touched upon. When talking about Africa, there is a danger of giving the impression that we can sort out all of its problems. We cannot; it is a matter for Africans, by and large. We can help, but it is for Africans to take the lead and for us to help. We can help only those who want to be helped and who demonstrate by their actions that they care about the welfare of their people. We must, of course, avoid hectoring, lecturing and patronising, which only rubs Africans up the wrong way. Nevertheless, we should not appease the unappeasable or make excuses for behaviour by corrupt elites that would not be acceptable in any other part of the world. There is a balance to be struck. We do not always get it right, but we must try.

If I learned one thing during the two happy years in which I was Minister with responsibility for Africa at the Foreign Office, it was that there is no shortage of decent, capable African leaders who care about their continent and the condition of their fellow citizens. Some of the most respected public figures on the planet are Africans, such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu. Our task is to encourage the good and discourage the bad, but we cannot do the job for Africans: it is for them to take the lead.

Several speakers have touched on the issues already, and they can be simply set out. In the short term, as the Foreign Secretary and others have said, we need to do what we can to help the poorest countries—many of which are in Africa—to get through the current world economic crisis, which is likely to hit them much harder than many of us. We must ensure that that issue is considered at the forthcoming G20 summit.

Considerable progress has been made on debt relief over the years, on which we have probably gone almost as far as we can for the time being, because we can offer such relief only to countries that demonstrate that they will spend the proceeds on the welfare of their people. There is no point in providing debt relief, as we are sometimes urged to do, to countries where the proceeds are used to fund either civil wars or corruption. Nevertheless, considerable progress has been made in that area, and one of the biggest pieces of progress made in my time at the Foreign Office was the renegotiation of the vast Nigerian debt of $35 billion. There was some element of relief involved in that, but we expected a large amount of it to be paid as well. That was a major step forward, and we played a positive role in encouraging our allies to engage with the Nigerians, and in encouraging the Nigerians to engage with the creditor countries.

We have a role to play in conflict resolution. I am sorry to say that the great disasters people have referred to—in Darfur, with the depredations of the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda and now, unfortunately, in the Central African Republic and the Congo—are matters on which I feel we could have done more, but for the fact that we became so heavily bogged down in the Iraq enterprise. Sadly, some of the people of Darfur, and perhaps those of northern Uganda, are collateral damage caused by the huge diversion of resources into the war in Iraq. We could have done a lot more, in my view. Rightly, we encouraged the African Union to take the lead, and provided it with capacity. We recognised at the outset, however, that it did not have the means to cope, and we asked it to do more than it was capable of. It could have done not just with logistical help, but with personnel from our armed forces in some capacity or other. They could have made a big impact on some of those peacekeeping missions.

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