Africa

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development) 9:40 pm, 30th March 2009

It is an honour to wind up this timely and informative debate. There is a proverb from the Kanuri region of Nigeria: the pillar of the world is hope. If I had to sum up the mood of the debate in a single word, it would be one of hope.

As we have heard, Africa continues to face not just economic challenges, but others such as disease, conflict and corruption, all of which might divide the continent. However, despite these pressures, the one thing that continues to unite Africa, as I have been fortunate enough to see for myself over the past two years during visits there, is a genuine sense of hope for the future. Sadly, hope these days is not enough, so I am pleased that the one thing that has been underlined in today's debate is the strong message from both sides of the House that there is a clear determination to do all we can to support Africa in finding an African solution to the many challenges that the continent continues to face.

My hon. Friend Mr. Simpson clearly outlined in a powerful opening speech the five principles that we on the Opposition Benches believe should underpin British policy in our efforts to support the continent. I shall start with a few words on our progress in achieving the millennium development goals mentioned by several speakers—Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, who focused on the failure to achieve the MDGs in Sierra Leone, my hon. Friend Tony Baldry, who was rightly concerned about progress across Africa in achieving those goals, and Christine Russell, who highlighted her concern at the lack of progress in achieving MDG 5.

In signing up to the goals nine years ago, the UK made a commitment, as part of the international community, to

"spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty."

In essence, we agreed that through those eight goals, we would work tirelessly to address the key issues holding back development in the world, particularly in Africa. The millennium development goals offer hope to many millions of people across the world. Although progress has been made, now that we have passed the halfway point in time, it is clear that much more needs to be done.

A few weeks ago the Secretary of State for International Development said that owing to the "financial tsunami" sweeping across the world, the achievement of the millennium development goals could be pushed back by three years. Two weeks ago I visited the International Monetary Fund in Washington, and the message there was equally clear—that despite overall progress towards the goals, it was likely that the world would still fail to meet its commitments, and that Africa, and in particular southern Africa, would fail to reach the MDGs by 2015.

To underline that, the 2008 Africa Progress Panel's report gave a clear assessment of what still needs to be done when it said:

"Right now, 33 million children in Africa of primary school age are not in school. Some parts of Africa continue to experience high levels of conflict. About 300 million Africans do not have a reliable supply of clean drinking water, and 450 million do not have access to proper sanitation."

In addition, figures suggest that 12 out of the 13 countries with the highest maternal mortality ratio are in Africa, and that about 41 per cent. of Africans are still living on less than $1 a day.

It is evident that Africa is struggling, but why does it continue to struggle? Contributions from hon. Members highlighted some of the continent's failings, but it is time we owned up to our own mistakes, learned from our failures and promised that in future we will live up to our commitments. That is why the Opposition support the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on international development by 2013. In his opening statement the Foreign Secretary referred to 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product, so I hope the Minister will clarify the point when he winds up.

The Government are always keen to trumpet how much they are spending, but we firmly believe that we should gauge success not only by input but by output, and we encourage the Government to be equally forthcoming about what has been achieved with the money spent. Clearly, the hon. Member for Crosby shares that view; she was frustrated at the failure of her parliamentary questions to get to the bottom of what has been achieved with the UK's shares of funds given to the various multilateral organisations.

Of course, some of Africa's countries have enjoyed greater success than others, and it would be unjust to suggest that all are failing. In a wide-ranging speech, Andrew Stunell highlighted many of the continent's successes. Botswana's governance and economic growth have been outstanding, for example. Furthermore, as was mentioned, Ghana recently held presidential elections and enjoyed a peaceful transition of power; as we have discovered, it is proud of the fact that it has three living ex-Presidents. There is also Rwanda, a country that I have got to know well. Despite its recent appalling past, it continues to progress under President Kagame. However, it is worrying that the stark assessment of the World Bank is that the very African countries that have made most progress by engaging with the developed world will be the first to feel the chill of the global economic downturn.

Many hon. Members raised cases of hope and issues of concern from across the continent during the debate. Mr. Mullin, who is not in his place, gave an informed speech, reminiscing about his time as a Minister at the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; I sensed that it was the unwritten eighth chapter of his book, "A View from the Foothills", which is available from all good bookshops. The hon. Gentleman made some interesting points about food security and the increasing role of China in Africa.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley gave a powerful speech focusing entirely on trade, and highlighted the challenges facing the G20 later this week. He warned of the dangers of protectionism and highlighted the problems of internal trade barriers in Africa and the fear that many poor African countries run the risk of falling behind their neighbours.

Mr. Clarke spoke with great eloquence, focusing on concerns across the House about President Bashir's expulsion of the aid agencies from Sudan, and the ongoing issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mr. George spoke about the need for good governance and the devastating effect that a series of failed states has had on the development of progress on the continent. Malcolm Bruce spoke with great experience and authority, as one would expect from the Chairman of the International Development Committee, about the Committee's recent visit to Kenya and the encouraging signs that its members found for sustainable development—not least the low-carbon produce. He also spoke about the parliamentary reform being carried out in Tanzania; having been there for the presidential elections in 2005, I found that deeply encouraging.

Perhaps the greatest hope came from the two contributions about Zimbabwe. For 38 years my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton has highlighted his concerns about the country. Although, like the political scene, the economic situation there remains bleak, it seems to be stabilising following the introduction of the US dollar. Prices of goods bought in US dollars have fallen by 3 per cent. since January. Kate Hoey, the chairman of the all-party group on Zimbabwe, rightly paid tribute to our high commissioner and staff; I had the privilege of meeting the high commissioner during his previous tenure in Tanzania.

Mike Gapes, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke with great authority about several southern African states, highlighting human rights abuses. My hon. Friend John Bercow has been a strong and consistent voice in the House on the subject of Darfur. Reinforcing the message of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, he eloquently highlighted the humanitarian crisis that continues to engulf the region, and made the moral and practical case on why more must be done. Michael Jabez Foster focused on his constituency links with Sierra Leone; my constituency, too, has such links through its excellent organisation, the Olney-Newton Link.

My hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke from great experience and underlined the excellent work being carried out by many faith-based agencies such as World Vision, which happens to be based in my constituency. Mr. Drew spoke with authority about Sudan. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to that country with him a couple of years ago.

I congratulate the Minister on the high percentage of DFID's bilateral aid that is directed to Africa—although I hope that last year's underspend on the continent will not be repeated this year, or, indeed, become the norm in these tough economic times.

I started on a positive note, and I would like to end on one. Africa's poverty levels have dropped by 6 per cent. since 2000, and the Africa Progress Panel suggests that if we continue to build on the work that is being done, the percentage of Africans living in absolute poverty will have dropped from 46.7 per cent. in 1990 to 31.4 per cent. in 2015. Between 1999 and 2005, primary school enrolment across the continent has increased by 36 per cent. Africa has made progress, but we in the international community must do more.

We have had an excellent and historic debate—the first in this Chamber dedicated to Africa as a continent, and opened by a Foreign Secretary, for 17 years. At a time when the continent faces some of its greatest ever challenges, I am sure that the whole House will agree that we cannot allow another 17 years to pass before we debate Africa again.

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