Poverty and Governance

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:11 pm on 11th January 2007.

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Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour 12:11 pm, 11th January 2007

My Lords, once again my noble friend Lady Whitaker has placed the House in her debt by initiating a timely debate on a subject which so often is crowded out by other and sometimes less important business. DfID, too, has earned our gratitude for a thoughtful White Paper which sets out not only the action plan but the context in which it requires to be taken. The right reverend Prelate understandably concentrated his contribution on the social and economic needs, and he did so very movingly. I hope he will forgive me if I confine my contribution to Chapter 4, which speaks of the need for peace and security, and Chapter 8, which calls for revision of the system of global governance.

The world has developed a wide network of intergovernmental institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are rarely the subject of television bulletins or, I confess, of conversations in my local. But they exercise enormous power over everyday life in all countries. As Chapter 8 points out, many of them were established in the years following World War II, for a totally different world.

The One World Trust—of which I should declare I am privileged to be president—has been conducting a project to assess the accountability and transparency of a wide range of global institutions in which, for the most part, they very willingly contributed. The trust has received generous encouragement from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who gave the keynote speech at the launch of the first report on 4 December, and even suggested that DfID itself might be subjected to a similar assessment. I do not believe that it would need to fear that experience.

The White Paper points out that if world poverty is to be eliminated, there needs to be agreement on some structural reforms. It speaks of fragmentation and duplication among United Nations agencies, a matter referred to by my noble friend Lady Whitaker. I recently read that 12 United Nations bodies are concerned with oceans and coasts, eight with food and agriculture, seven with forests and six with fresh water. The new Secretary-General has indicated that he proposes to devote some of his time to restructuring that organisation. I hope, and I believe, that he will receive support from the United Kingdom Government.

It is easy to list the situations where the United Nations might be open to criticism—although the criticism, of course, is of the member states which take the decisions, often pursuing their own agenda. The list could be matched by an impressive list of achievements, of selfless and sometimes heroic service in the field. Often, statistics do not tell the whole story. The achievements may be reflected in what does not happen: the populations which do not suffer starvation; the refugees who do not die; the conflicts which do not break out. But the White Paper is right to draw attention to what needs to be done. It calls for a unified United Nations presence in any one country based on a single programme with one leader, one office and one budget.

Perhaps most importantly, while recognising what has been done in conflict prevention, there are tragic examples where the United Nations and national Governments have been spectators when the need was for intervention. Darfur threatens to provide another tragic example. Chapter 4 of the White Paper has a subheading,

"Insecurity and conflict keep people poor".

If the object is to improve the quality of life for all the world's peoples, that needs to be built on peace and the rule of law—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Certainly conflict keeps people poor. It absorbs a high proportion of the resources that need to be used for eliminating poverty. The cost of relief and reconstruction following the war in Rwanda was estimated at $2 billion.

There is a further dimension. Resources needed for food and development are diverted into the purchase of armaments. It has been calculated that countries in receipt of development aid spend about £75 billion annually on military expenditure. Indonesia is in debt to the United Kingdom to the extent of $1.408 billion, more than half of which represents defence contracts, some of them for Hawk jets which have been used to destroy Papuan villages. So emerges a vicious cycle. Poverty leads to resentment and conflict; conflict leads to further poverty. In paragraph 4.9, the White Paper points out that investment in the prevention of conflicts is far more cost-effective than a post-conflict rebuilding programme. That means, for example, investment in a system for gathering and co-ordinating early intelligence and a swift reaction capacity.

It is good to read in paragraph 4.8 that the United Kingdom supports projects to assist developing states to take weapons such as small arms out of circulation, to reform and professionalise armed forces and to improve legal systems. Perhaps when she replies my noble friend can tell us a little more about that.

Perhaps the most urgent peacekeeping reform would be to expedite the reaction of the international community to a humanitarian crisis. The reaction to 9/11 was very swift, but for Rwanda, which suffered the equivalent of 10 9/11s every day for 100 days, the will to action was, sadly, less in evidence.

The expression "joined-up government" is rarely heard these days, but DfID has sought to create seamless policies across departmental divides. As we all share one aim—to create a better world—that sounds like common sense.