Government Support for NGOs and Churches in Developing Nations: Covid-19 — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:16 pm on 25th March 2021.

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Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:16 pm, 25th March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship here this afternoon, Mr Efford. The Minister for Civil Society would love to have replied to this debate, but she is travelling on FCDO business, so I am afraid hon. Members will have to put up with me in her place. I will do my best to fill her considerable boots.

I am incredibly grateful to Jim Shannon for securing this debate. It is always a pleasure to listen to him speak and to hear his wisdom on these matters. He speaks with great authority. May I also add my birthday congratulations? It is a real shame that he is not here today, because I brought a card for him. I will pop it in the internal post for my hon. Friend—indeed, my friend.

I commend his ongoing work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion or belief. It continues to raise the profile of this human right to parliamentarians and, importantly, to the public. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Stephen Doughty, the Opposition spokesman, brings with him a depth of knowledge, having worked in the sector. We are incredibly grateful for the commitment to the causes and the ongoing work that he does.

The integrated review, which was published last week, sets out our renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world. It is our goal to defend open societies, democracy and human rights. For open societies to develop and thrive, they need an inclusive civic space and a vibrant civil society, and for that reason, NGOs and faith-based groups are essential partners. These partnerships can open a dialogue with and provide support for the world’s most marginalised people. This is particularly true, as we have heard this afternoon from hon. Members, during the pandemic. As covid-19 continues to affect communities around the world, we continue to take a leading role in this response.

We have committed up to £1.3 billion of ODA to counter the seismic impact of the pandemic. Nearly £70 million is going directly to international and UK-based charities to support vulnerable communities to recover and to rebuild. There is a great deal of work going on, but, as we have heard in the informed speeches this afternoon, the challenges of the pandemic run deep.

As hon. Members have said, we have had to take an incredibly tough but temporary decision to reduce our spending on overseas development. In real terms, as hon. Members will know, we will still be spending more than £10 billion to fight poverty and climate change. That money is to help improve global health and achieve the UN sustainable development goals. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth wants more detail about potential reductions in funding in this regard. At this time, I cannot confirm such details, but hopefully clarity will be given in the coming weeks. So we understand the challenges for the sector and the need for clarity—that is absolutely clear—and although this is a complex process, the Government commit to sharing details, as I have said, as soon as is practically possible.

Together with NGOs, faith-based groups and religious leaders, we are continuing to deliver for those most in need, in order to keep essential services going at this time. Through our partnership with Unilever—the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition—the UK Government are providing up to £50 million to mount a rapid response to covid-19 in 37 low and middle-income countries. Through this programme, charities including World Vision, which the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth once worked for, WaterAid and ActionAid are delivering evidence-based hygiene messages to vulnerable communities. This type of support plays a vital role in stopping the spread of the disease in the developing world and will also potentially limit its further spread in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford asked about the humanitarian response to covid-19. Through our rapid response facility, we have allocated £80 million to support UK and international humanitarian charities, including Christian Aid, to meet the basic needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. That includes those suffering from multiple crises in Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Last summer, the British public generously donated more than £10 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for covid-19, and the UK Government have provided match funding to double that amount. The appeal is funding the work of the British Red Cross and CARE International UK, among others. These charities are tackling the impacts of the pandemic on displaced people, including those in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. They are providing frontline doctors with equipment and supplies to care for the sick, and giving families clean water and soap to stay healthy.

We are committed to delivering our aid according to internationally recognised humanitarian principles. Those principles ensure that aid gets to those who are most vulnerable and most urgently in need of help, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. This issue was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford, and this group includes minority religious communities, who are assessed by our partners when they are determining those most in need of protection and assistance. And as the hon. Member also mentioned in his excellent speech, churches and other faith groups are providing essential services around the world during the pandemic.

We know that faith-based networks can reach the most remote communities and involve the world’s poorest people in their social, economic and political life. They can reach people who are largely untouched by secular institutions, such as persecuted religious minorities, which is vital, because these groups may experience crises such as covid-19 outbreaks differently from others. Such crises may reinforce their marginalisation, multiply their experience of discrimination, violence and stigma, and further limit their access to essential support and services. We are currently funding more than 200 projects that are managed by 126 different faith-based groups, organisations and churches. Our support totals £130 million annually and spans 39 countries.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth rightly mentioned many of the great projects around the globe, many of them in conflict areas. The majority of our partners are small in-country groups deeply rooted in local communities, such as the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Jamaica Baptist Union. In many countries, the indirect health, humanitarian and economic impacts of the pandemic are being felt very keenly, as they exacerbate pre-existing problems. They are reversing years of development gains in areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality, girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health and rights. With our support, faith-based groups are working to counter that trend.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked that funding be prioritised to reach the most marginalised, and he is correct. The UK is committed to delivering aid according to its internationally-recognised humanitarian principles. Those principles ensure that aid gets to those who are the most vulnerable and most urgently in need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. They provide health and education, empower people to hold their Governments to account and strengthen resilience to disaster and conflict. Through our support to Christian Aid, we are enhancing nutrition for women of childbearing age and under-fives in South Sudan, our funding to CAFOD is building community resilience to climate shocks in Eritrea, Zambia and Zimbabwe and we have supported Tearfund to provide secure livelihoods for women in the Central African Republic.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth referred to transparency. We have a world-renowned reputation on transparency. We are committed to aid transparency both legally and publicly, and we are committed to the publication of quality, accessible information on our aid programmes, which is available on the Development Tracker, along with the continued independent scrutiny of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

The pandemic has undoubtedly brought out the best in many communities around the world. Nevertheless, there has also been a concerning increase in hate speech and a rise in conspiracy theories, which the hon. Member for Strangford referred to, such as that certain faiths are to blame. I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s steadfast commitment to championing freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. The UK’s recently appointed special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, will continue to advance that important agenda.

My ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, also regularly meets civil society and faith-based development organisations to hear about the challenges minority faith communities face, particularly during the pandemic. The UK Government are deeply concerned by the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, and we will continue to refute those divisive and harmful claims.

We will also continue to put our money where our mouth is on hate speech. The FCDO is funding an Institute of Development Studies project that works with minority religious groups in Africa and Asia, doing vital work in challenging narratives and countering hate speech relating to minorities and the spread of covid-19. We are also working with the University of Oxford and parliamentarians in nine countries to reduce the use of language during elections that intimidates minority religious groups.

I think I heard Brendan O’Hara extending an invitation to me to visit Togo to see the great work that is being done there. I would love to take that up but, unfortunately, I am the Minister for Asia, not the Minister responsible for this particular brief. I will ensure that my colleague hears about it, and I am sure she will be very keen to see the great work that is going on in that regard.

The effects of the pandemic have been far-reaching and will continue to have an impact on our lives for some time. The UK will remain at the forefront of the international response as we recover and rebuild in the wake of covid-19. We will be a force for good in those places most in need and for the most vulnerable communities. Our effectiveness will rely on the expertise of our partners, the NGOs whose brilliant work has been described so well this afternoon and the faith-based organisations. Only with trusted people embedded in those communities most in need can we provide relief, promote recovery and build back the open societies that shape security and prosperity for us all.