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Africa

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:56 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster Labour, Hastings and Rye 8:56 pm, 30th March 2009

I guess that we do not need reminding—although it is always worth doing so—that the economic tsunami that is now engulfing our world metes out its worst effects to those who are the least able to defend themselves. That includes many of the nations of Africa, including Sierra Leone. We heard a lot about that country from my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas earlier.

I believe that we need to keep things simple. A combination of trade and aid is needed, but the sub-plot is the question of how we can best deliver this to the greatest effect. Whether we are combating climate change or relieving poverty, it starts with us as individuals. What we do can make a significant difference. I am ever impressed by the work of the fair trade advocates. For example, in my constituency, Christine and Michael Ward knock on our doors and our consciences, reminding us constantly that, for only a few pennies more, we can purchase fairly traded tea, coffee and other products, which gives hope and opportunity to the growers in the third world that would otherwise be denied to them.

I also recognise that helping to build undeveloped economies, while important, does not resolve the concerns of the here and now. Starving children cannot wait for the upturn in the economy. That is why I am delighted by the comment by our Prime Minister that, even in this difficult time, the wealthy nations must play their part. I hope that the G20 will make that resolution. The test will be that they will have failed if they do not recognise the needs of Africa as a priority. As a Labour Member, I am obviously justifiably proud that we have trebled the spend on overseas programmes over the past 12 years, and that we are now the second biggest giver of international aid in the world. However, I would still like us to go for the gold as soon as possible.

It is true that, while Government agencies and non-governmental organisations such as World Vision do an amazing job, concern is frequently expressed about how much of the aid reaches its proper destination, and about how much corruption depletes the value of the giving. I am often reminded of the words of the late, lamented Lord Donald Soper, a Christian socialist who was a great hero of mine. He spent much of his time standing on a soap box at Speakers' Corner. One Sunday, one of the wags in the audience asked him why we should give overseas aid, when half of it never reached the poor. Lord Soper replied that that was a reason for giving twice as much. I think he had a point.

However, there is a better way of making every pound count, and of reducing administrative costs and the risk of corruption. I know that the British Government have been working hard on this, and if it can all be done, it will provide a better answer. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby explaining earlier some of the administrative quandaries—indeed, the nightmare of problems—that Government projects sometimes take on and their failing to produce the intended outcomes.

I modestly suggest that there is a way of pursuing those objectives, at least at the bottom end. In fact, there are probably two ways of providing direct action and support. The first is remittances. Expatriates of many African countries—and, I suspect, of elsewhere—send part of their hard-earned earnings directly back to the families they left behind. There is nothing wrong with that. Going as it does directly to the families in need, it is estimated to account for twice the value of our overseas aid budget. At some time in the future, we could perhaps consider the possibility of providing tax relief on such payments, although I acknowledge the difficulty of ensuring proper tax compliance.

The second and direct way of offering support is from community to community. Over the past eight years, I have been involved with the Hastings-Sierra Leone friendship link. If you would like to know more about it, Madam Deputy Speaker, you can look at www.hastingshastings.org.uk, but I will try to tell you a little about it in the remaining minutes.

First, we are not the only town in Britain to be involved in twinning projects. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby was at the vanguard in her efforts to drive and support links between Crosby and Waterloo in Sierra Leone. Her motivational leadership—I was going to say that she chairs the committee, but my hon. Friend does not really chair anything; she motivates, harangues and ensures that things happen—helped to achieve that. That is a practical example of what can happen. I believe that a £1 million library is being built, but school libraries are already in place and 250,000 books have been delivered, all aiding and supporting the education of young people in that town.

I would like to say a little more about our twinning experience in Hastings, how it came about and what it has made possible. I hope that the Government will feel able to encourage more such links, as they really work. Back in 2001, following the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, I had cause to be in the lift—a very slow lift—just by the Dining Room with my hon. Friend Mr. Kilfoyle, who was a Defence Minister at the time. He told me he had just come back from Hastings, Sierra Leone, and the town was in a terrible mess; he asked whether we could do something about it. It so happened that, some months previously, the then British high commissioner, Sir Peter Penfold, had suggested that members of the peacekeeping forces contact UK towns with the same message—namely, that they should try to contact towns of a similar name in Sierra Leone and see what could be done.

Such a message came to Hastings via a young officer known as Wayne Addy, a young man from nearby Sedlescombe. Nothing happened at that time, but when it was added to by the entreaty of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, it fell on ready ears. I approached Dr. John Geater, chairman of the local Christian charity, LOAF. The LOAF project had recently built a school in Rwanda and an orphanage in Romania, so it had experience in developing countries. LOAF adopted Hastings, Sierra Leone, as its 2001 project and enlisted the support of local engineer Derek Tomblin, who in the years since has been superb in offering his expertise and enthusiasm to the cause. Derek travelled to Sierra Leone and identified some 13 bridges that needed total rebuilding, restoring or upgrading. LOAF appealed to the Hastings and St. Leonards community—schools, Churches, businesses and so forth—to sponsor a bridge; and a generous community responded.

A group calling itself the Hastings-Sierra Leone friendship link was then organised to ensure continuity when LOAF moved on to another project. Within three years those bridges were built, assisting the locals of Hastings, Sierra Leone to move more freely around the district, to travel into Freetown and to rebuild the devastation that the civil war had caused. While the idea was that of Derek Tomblin and the plans came from him, the building was done by local labour: that was what was so important. Derek Tomblin and all those involved, however, were not content with simply a one-off project; they wanted a long-term relationship—a reciprocal relationship whereby Hastings UK could learn as well as give.

We discovered an ex-pat Sierra Leone group in London, known as the Sierra Leone-Hastings association UK. The leading lights of that organisation, Yvonne Johnson and Yvette John, were more than ready to come to Hastings UK and over the years that followed, we have regularly enjoyed community events with African music and food in our parks and in our community centres. It has been fun, but it has also enabled us not just to pay for those 13 bridges but to proceed with a major project to build a community resource centre. The centre, designed by Derek Tomblin with local input, is now virtually complete, and should be operational by the end of the year.

Most important, in 2006, Hastings borough council, under the then Labour leadership of Councillor Jeremy Birch—who is now the chair of the Sierra Leone friendship link—decided to pursue the idea of a formal twinning with its namesake in Sierra Leone. We have a number of other twins in Europe. This will be very different, but the commitment was absolute. Although political control of the town changed subsequently, the whole-town understanding was maintained. The new leader of what was now a Conservative council, Councillor Peter Pragnell—along with the deputy mayor, Eve Martin, and with the support of the mayor, Maureen Charlesworth—took part in the formal twinning ceremony on 14 February 2007 in Sierra Leone, which I was happy to attend.

This has become a genuine all-party project including people across the political spectrum. For example, the Liberal Democrats' Paul Smith was also involved. The formal twinning gives status and structure to the arrangement, but it is the day-to-day work under the wise guidance of Robin Gray, secretary of the friendship link, that has enabled us to make a difference. Indeed, the social interaction between the two towns has been almost as important as the direct financial aid. For example, Roger Mitchell and his wife Margaret have been very much involved in linking schools. Seven of our Hastings schools are now linked with seven schools in Hastings, Sierra Leone. Recently, Chris Lacey of Helenswood school handed over a cheque for £6,098. That money was raised by the young people as a contribution to the cost of providing a community nurse in Hastings Sierra Leone. Of course, every penny will be spent for that purpose.

Another fine example is the twinning of Christ Church school—I stress that it is a Church of England school—with Kankaylay Islamic school in Hastings, Sierra Leone. Although Christ Church is a Christian school, when it learned that about £11,000 was needed to buy land and rebuild Kankaylay—a lot can be done for £11,000 in Sierra Leone—that Christian organisation set about raising the money. It has already raised about half of it, the land has been bought, and over the coming months Christ Church school will seek to raise the building costs.

Arrangements of that kind will work because of the involvement of local people. It is not organisational and it does not require Government intervention, although Government support would be very helpful. What matters is the existence of an organisation that is "grass roots" in the obvious way that I have described. Anne Hanney, head teacher of that school in St Leonards, was part of the original twinning party. She recently arranged for a further group from Christ Church school to visit Sierra Leone with the support of the creative partnership project. Three members of her staff—Anne Hsapolyo, Rose Pelling and Tania Kavanagh—were involved in a week of activities at the Islamic school, teaching and learning not just lessons but games, and bringing back ideas, which are now being used successfully at Christ Church. That is a fine illustration of the fact that the link can work in both directions.

The school links have been fun as well. I recall that at the time of the twinning Veriko Scrivener, a teacher from Elphinstone School in Hastings, composed a song called "I Love Hastings" . It was amazing to see all the little African children from Hastings, Sierra Leone singing in unison, joined by Hastings school children.

I could have described much more if I had had time to do so. Conquest Hospital in Hastings has been sending surplus medical supplies. Gary Walsh of the East Sussex fire and rescue service not only went to Hastings, but has since been offering training opportunities and advice to its Sierra Leone counterpart. The police have formed a link, as have Churches.

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