Commonwealth

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:31 pm on 18th July 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Vadera Baroness Vadera Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development 10:31 pm, 18th July 2007

My Lords, I start by expressing my gratitude to Members from all parts of the House for the warmth of their welcome since I have joined and their kind words during this debate. Your Lordships' advice and support has helped me immensely, as I continue to adjust to my new role in government. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for securing this important debate. I will endeavour to reply to a few questions, given the time constraints. If noble Lords will permit, I shall write to them on the remainder that I have noted.

Today's debate takes me back to my earliest memories at primary school in Jinja, Uganda. My mother tongue was Gujarati, and I struggled with English. I was about to leave for India because of the Idi Amin repression. The last place that I, a stateless child between Asia and Africa, could ever have expected to be was standing before your Lordships as the newest member of the House of Lords. The daughter of a Kenyan mother and Ugandan father, of Indian origin, educated in Jinja, Bangalore, Bombay and finally Britain, like my noble friend Lady Howells, I feel a true child of the Commonwealth. I am one of its most fortunate. The tolerance and generosity of British society and the ties that bind the Commonwealth together gave me my life chances, most recently to work eight years at the Treasury, arguing its case against the insistent and sometimes unreasonable pleadings of other departments, and now three weeks at DfID, arguing its case against the insistent and sometimes unreasonable parsimony of the Treasury.

As noble Lords from all sides of the House have said, the Commonwealth brings together countries not because of what they want but because of what they are. The Commonwealth's unique and underestimated strength but also in part its limitation is the fact that it is not an exclusive club of the most powerful like the G8. Nor does it generate tension between developing and developed countries, as sometimes occurs in the IMF and World Bank. Nor, like the UN, does it have regional groups competing to advance their agendas. Its members speak for themselves with an equal voice, whether they are small island states or global players. I am intrigued by the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, that we should have an unsentimental assessment of the Commonwealth, and I will investigate that.

In response to the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, I can say that the importance that we place on the use of this rare forum will be illustrated by the seriousness of the agenda and the breadth of our team attending CHOGM in November. My life will have come full circle as I join the British delegation going to my birthplace, Uganda. I welcome the theme of the meetings, transforming Commonwealth societies for political, economic and social development. There are new challenges facing this development, not least climate change, which we have helped to secure on the CHOGM agenda in the run-up to Bali in December. But the old challenges remain.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, rightly emphasises economic development and business formation. The Commonwealth Business Council creates very similar networks to those that she mentioned. I view aid not as charity or welfare, nor as the creation of permanent dependency, but as an investment in equitable growth and the individual's dignity of economic independence. With reference to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and the noble Lord, Lord Jay, in most poor countries aid is necessary, but in no country is it a sufficient catalyst for development. Wealth creation, economic growth and good governance must be central to poverty eradication.

The Commonwealth has extremes of experience to learn from in this regard. Over the last 20 years, India has saved 100 million people from poverty, and within the next 20 is expected to become the fourth largest economy in the world. But while its GDP is growing at 8 per cent, it is creating jobs at only 3 per cent a year. That inequitable growth has meant nearly one-half of all Indian children are undernourished—a far higher level than in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, India's ability to benefit from an international services market shows the importance of trade for growth and reducing poverty. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that trade will be right up there at CHOGM.

In response to the concerns expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I can say that the UK has argued its position on the flexibility of economic partnership agreements consistently since 2005, and that has not changed for any other strategic reason. We believe that the Commission has accepted many of our arguments and is showing more flexibility in order to conclude negotiations by the end of the year, but we continue to monitor these negotiations closely.

I am delighted to see present my noble friend Lord Joffe, who introduced me last week. In response to his question and that of my noble friend Lord Judd, I should say that education is going to be a central agenda going forward, both at CHOGM and generally for development. Across the Commonwealth, 26 million children—nearly two-thirds of them girls—do not go to school. Education is the best investment that the world can make and, together with health, the best way to break the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. For every year of schooling in the poorest countries, incomes grow by more than 10 per cent. For every extra year that a mother went to school, the chances of her children dying fall by 8 per cent. In large parts of the world, poverty has a woman's face; empowering women is both a means and an end for transforming societies.

The UK has committed £8.5 billion over 10 years to get every child, especially girls, into school. Our commitment was ground-breaking, not just in its magnitude, but in its understanding of the need for patient capital to get a generation into productive economic activity. The 10-year results-based commitment gives the certainty of funding that countries need to plan and develop sustainable education systems with the ability to train, as well as continue to pay teachers and to make education free, and therefore universal.

With respect to health, I wish to assure my noble friend Lady Whitaker that pneumococcal disease will be addressed in the reviews of our health strategy. There is a significant market failure in research and development for diseases that affect poor countries due to their weak purchasing power. Only 10 per cent of global health research is devoted to conditions that account for 90 per cent of the world's disease burden. If successful, the advanced market commitment that we launched will result in a relevant strain of pneumococcal vaccine, which could save up to 5 million lives over the next 25 years.

It was disconcerting enough when the noble Baroness, Lady Park, used to question me as principal at Somerville College. I cannot begin to tell you how disconcerting it is to be questioned by her now, in your Lordships' House. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her contribution to my education and her graciously selective memory of my undergraduate years.

The noble Baroness raised the subject of Zimbabwe, as did many other noble Lords. My family's experience of a ruthless dictator left me with no tolerance for those who abuse their citizens and destroy nations in the name of anti-colonialism. As will be discussed in another place tomorrow, we agree with noble Lords that Mugabe is not going to be a part of the solution for Zimbabwe's future. This Government will continue to work with SADC and the Commonwealth to ensure that the people of Zimbabwe can exercise the right to determine that future. I agree with noble Lords that the Commonwealth has a duty of care to assist the people of Zimbabwe, as it assisted South Africans during apartheid. This Government stand prepared to assist in what tragically, but inevitably, will be an extremely fragile state, with its economic base and social fabric destroyed.

In the mean time, the people of Zimbabwe face a humanitarian crisis. A quarter of the population have fled to neighbouring countries and half those remaining need urgent food aid. More than 3,000 people die of HIV/AIDS every week. To help those immediately at risk, I am able to announce to the House today that DfID is committing £50 million to extend the protracted relief programme for the next five years. The programme will be delivered entirely through local and international NGOs and will provide seeds, fertilisers, livestock and access to HIV/AIDS care to assist 2 million of the country's most vulnerable.

While the reconstruction of Zimbabwe and development in the Commonwealth are strategic concerns to us, in the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, there are no "moral strangers" in this world. I am conscious that many in this House share this view and have exercised much effort and expertise toward this end. I hope that in my position as Minister for International Development I can build on your Lordships' strong platform. I was rather optimistically named Shriti, which means "knowledge" in Sanskrit. To borrow the words of Herman Hesse, more than knowledge, it is the wisdom of the distinguished Members of this House that I will seek to find, live, and be filled and sustained by in fulfilling my duty. Thank you.