Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 9th February 2012.

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Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Shadow Minister (International Development) 3:15 pm, 9th February 2012

Somalia is one of the places that are seen most often through the lens of conflict, famine and humanitarian disaster as failed states. Today’s debate has echoed some of the big challenges that it faces.

Somalia has often been spoken of in relation to international terrorism and the threats posed by al-Shabaab, along with the challenges of piracy. However, I and many other Members know that there is another story, which is often depicted by our constituents from the British Somali community. It is a story of aspiration and of the heritage and history of Somalia before the ongoing conflicts.

From speaking to many members of the British Somali community in my constituency, I know that they are proud of their cultural and religious heritage. They do not want Somalia to be portrayed by the current negative images. They are also proud of the contributions that they make to the people of Somalia through remittance and support, through family connections and more widely. They aspire to see a Somalia that is stable, secure, democratic and economically sustainable, in which people can live free from fear, conflict and famine. The decent majority both in Somalia and outside want to see an end to the conflict and terrorism that have damaged the reputation of their country and led to its often negative portrayal. Our job is to do everything we can to ensure that we somehow make that aspiration a reality.

The humanitarian crisis in the horn of Africa has only made that job harder. No conflict-affected or fragile state will achieve the millennium development goals, which means that large swathes of the world will be left further behind. Today’s debate and the Somalia conference, which I welcome along with other hon. Members, provide an important opportunity to talk about not only security issues, which are vital to our interests as well as Somalia’s, but the challenges of development, economic progress and stability facing the people of Somalia. I hope that development will genuinely be a central component of the conference later this month alongside those other issues.

As other Members have pointed out, there has been no effective government in Somalia for more than two decades, and the impact is all too clear to see. The internationally recognised transitional federal Government control only the capital and a small area in the centre of the country. Puntland and the de facto independent Somaliland both have more effective, if unrecognised, governments in the north and north-west of the country. Despite the recent setbacks for al-Shabaab, it continues to control large sections of the south and engage in constant conflict with the TFG.

Somalia today is a country with some of the worst human development indicators in the world. Average life expectancy is only 48 years, and approximately

1.4 million of the estimated population of more than 9 million have been displaced. As other Members have pointed out, piracy also remains a major problem, not least because a large proportion of food aid—90% of World Food Programme aid in 2010—arrives by sea. As well as the wider costs of piracy, therefore, a wider challenge is posed by it in respect of getting aid and support to people affected by the famine.

A concerted effort from a coalition of African forces is, as has been said, pushing al-Shabaab back. Its withdrawal from Mogadishu last August provided some hope, for the first time in a long time, that it can be defeated. There is some evidence to suggest that its support from sections of the population is beginning to wane, which clearly needs to be encouraged and supported. In the interim, the international community must prioritise protecting civilians, and encouraging reconciliation and a political solution. I am encouraged by the fact that the conference will focus on such issues, which are important because conflict costs not only lives, which is tragic enough, but prospects for the country.

More than 1.5 billion live in countries affected by repeated cycles of political and criminal violence. As the “World Development Report 2011” shows, a developing country in the middle of a conflict does not grow or create jobs for its people, and does not invest in the next generation. There is currently no formal economy in many parts of Somalia. Although I am aware of positive examples, they are clearly not enough. The conflict is not conducive to economic investment or growth, so the resolution to the conflict is a priority. There must be reconciliation, but that must go hand in hand with the development challenges in creating the climate in which we can ensure that there is humanitarian assistance, support for medium and long-term development, and a pathway to progress to stability for the country and its population.

Those living in conflict or fragile states are twice as likely to be under-nourished and more than three times as likely to be unable to send their children to school. Child mortality is twice as high in conflict states. Worse, conflict in one country affects neighbouring countries. As we have seen, the effect of Somalia on neighbouring countries such as Kenya in the form of refugee flows has led to huge aid challenges. I welcome the contribution that our Government have made to supporting those affected by the famine, but greater action is clearly needed for those still suffering in the aftermath.

The conflict in Somalia continues to cost lives—it is virtually impossible to estimate exactly how many—and makes it harder to tackle the problems that can help to resolve it. Hospitals and feeding centres have been hit by artillery and civilians continue to be killed in the fighting. Protecting them and the vital services they need must be central to our programme in Somalia.

Understanding and tackling the drivers of the conflict is essential. For example, resource scarcity and natural disasters, which are clearly drivers of conflict, have affected Somalia greatly.

Conflict in such countries is also—critically—about development, as I have mentioned. Political security and economic dynamics all play their part, but lower gross domestic product per capita is also associated with large-scale political conflicts. Alongside work to resolve the conflict, which is vital, we must address the humanitarian and long-term development challenges.

Crises such as droughts are drivers of conflict, so supporting the people of Somalia who are affected by the famine and getting aid in are critical. As I stated earlier, removing the barriers to the delivery of aid through organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was reaching more than 1 million people and is now being prevented from doing so by al-Shabaab, must be a priority for the conference agenda. I hope the conference will address that issue and make much more progress than has been made so far, because al-Shabaab has prevented one non-governmental organisation after another from getting aid into parts of Somalia.

The UK has a good track record. Despite the difficult climate and the conflict, it has worked to try to get aid into Somalia through different organisations and through the means available to us. However, there remains a huge challenge. It is estimated that at least a quarter of the Somali population—one of the highest proportions in the world—is still in urgent need of relief and assistance, and 60% of the population live below the poverty line, on less than $1 a day.

As the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander, said, the previous Government increased aid to Somalia from just over £3 million in 2002-03 to £34 million, and that money made a huge difference to people’s lives. For instance, 650,000 people in south-central Somalia received basic health treatment, including vaccinations, deworming tablets and nutritional screening, and more than 120,000 children were treated for acute malnutrition in the same region. Water points and sanitation facilities were created for about 50,000 people, and much more was done. Leaving aside those achievements, however, it is clear that we have to do much more, given the challenges Somalia faces and the nature of the conflict. Given the current climate, we have to focus on where and how we can get support to people in conflict zones to ensure they do not face a continued crisis.

When the Foreign Secretary visited Somalia last week—we are pleased to see the beginning of new, more normalised relations with Somalia—his focus seemed to be particularly on security and piracy. Although that is crucial, and although it is in our interests and those of the region, it is critical that we move beyond the rhetoric about development and supporting countries facing conflict to ensure they have the appropriate support and assistance to make the transition from being failed and fragile states facing conflict to being more independent, sustainable societies, where our aid effort genuinely can make a difference.

The February conference is an important development and a chance for the Government to show the international leadership that is vitally needed. Many of us will be watching closely, along with our constituents, to see whether progress is being made. We will be willing the international community on to ensure that this opportunity is not missed and that there is lasting peace and security in Somalia. Although the military dimension and the regional co-operation dimension are vital, the humanitarian dimension must be integral to the discussions and the actions that follow the conference. Long-term stability in Somalia will be about finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict and a political settlement that includes addressing Somaliland’s independence, as well as about achieving sustainable development.

As the worst of the famine passes, we cannot forget that 4 million people, including 2 million children, are still in need of immediate food security and livelihood support. Britain must remain committed to helping that group of people, who desperately need our support. That means having a stronger focus on food security. The international community had warnings of imminent drought and famine in Somalia but it did not act early enough, as was shown by the recent Oxfam and Save the Children report.

Alongside the need for democratic and functional state institutions, I hope that we can consider how countries such as Somalia can gradually attract and build a viable economic environment. Although it is a challenge, we must consider the medium and longer-term aims, if we are to ensure that a failed or fragile state can make the transition to economic and social development and if we are to secure lasting progress.

I hope that the conference will focus on how to get humanitarian assistance to those still affected in Somalia and that a concerted effort will be made to build strong, democratic institutions. It might feel premature now but we have to aspire to ensuring the Somalia has institutions and governance arrangements fit to serve the people of the country. To prevent future disasters and learn from what has happened, the international community must focus on building resilience within both the international systems and the country itself, and we must help Somalia to respond more effectively than it has in the past year to disasters, famine and the humanitarian challenges that it is likely to continue to face. It is also important that the most vulnerable people, such as women and children, who are often the first to suffer in conflict and humanitarian disasters, be supported.

In conclusion, I look forward to progress being made at the conference. I and other hon. Members with a passionate interest in Somalia will follow the conference closely to see that it makes a genuine difference, and we will support the Government’s efforts to bring the international community together to ensure that the concerns and interests of the Somali population are addressed alongside our interest in a secure and stable country.