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House of Commons

Wednesday 30 January 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Norman Baker (Lewes): What steps she is taking to assist the people of Tibet. [29124]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): In Tibet, we are supporting two projects run by Save the Children UK. These are providing basic services to poor Tibetan communities to improve their access to education, clean water and sanitation. We also contribute to the EU's programme in Tibet.

Norman Baker: I welcome that news. Will the Minister ensure that any projects supported by his Department enhance the political, cultural and economic rights of the indigenous people of Tibet? That is especially important given that China, the occupying power, is very keen to use its western economic development strategy to "crush splittism", as it puts it.

Hilary Benn: I am aware that the hon. Gentleman takes a particular and keen interest in human rights in Tibet. The House must remember that the poor have human rights too. That is why it is right that we should be involved in the projects that we support. In the longer term, the economic development of China and Tibet provides opportunities to improve the dialogue between us on human rights, for the simple reason that, in the end, a more open society is one in which it is more difficult to abuse human rights.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I am sure that the Minister will agree that our thoughts are with the people of Tibet as they face the serious illness of the Dalai Lama. However, are the Government doing anything to help the displaced people from Tibet, especially those in India?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that the House will echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. The Government have been funding a higher education project for Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala in India.

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Natural Disasters (Africa)

2. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): What steps she is taking to support preparations for a rapid reaction capability in Africa for flooding and other natural disasters. [29125]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): My Department is working to strengthen international disaster response across the world by strengthening the capacity of the United Nations system. However, following any disaster, most lives are saved in the first few hours by the immediate local effort. We therefore support work across the world, particularly through the Red Cross, to build up local and national capacity for immediate response.

Following the floods in Mozambique two years ago, we have been working through the UN to increase the capacity of the Government of Mozambique to respond to disasters. We are making a similar effort in India, following the lessons of the Gujerat earthquake.

Dr. Palmer: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. She may remember that I and many other MPs raised this matter after the Mozambique floods. We were concerned that support infrastructure—helicopters, emergency supplies, and so on—was not available on the continent of Africa, and had to be brought in from Britain and elsewhere. Is there a role for additional continental reaction capability, going beyond the individual countries involved, to enable us to respond to disasters anywhere in Africa?

Clare Short: We are trying to work through the UN to make sure that stocks are deployed across the world that can be drawn on in any disaster. My hon. Friend might recall that, despite all the arguments that took place about helicopters from the UK, the cheapest and most readily available helicopters came from South Africa. They were deployed very quickly, although we had to provide the fuel. My hon. Friend will remember the little girl who was born in a tree. She and her mother were lifted out of that tree by a South African helicopter using UK-supplied fuel.

People think of sending material directly from their home countries, but that is usually very slow. My Department has lots of stocks that can be deployed when they are needed, but we are trying to achieve a regional and national response to disasters, as people often lose their lives when resources have to be brought in from a long distance.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): A rapid reaction facility such as the Secretary of State has described may well have been of help to the Democrat Republic of the Congo after the recent volcano eruption. However, is it not important that such initiatives do not distract us from the need to ensure sufficient sustainable development? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two-thirds of people face malnourishment, and the UN consolidated appeal for the Congo is only 40 per cent. funded. There is sometimes a danger that we focus on the headlines created by initiatives such those described by the right hon. Lady,

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without sufficient attention being paid to the underlying need for sustainable development in countries such as the Congo, and others elsewhere in Africa.

Clare Short: Clearly, the Goma disaster was very bad. Everyone saw the graphic pictures. But the international response was quite effective. I talked to President Kagame yesterday. People are in need because they have lost possessions, but the situation is under control. The response was pretty good.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a disastrous situation in the poor benighted Democratic Republic of the Congo. From colonial times to the present day, people there have never had decent governance. Obviously, we must respond to the humanitarian disaster, but the real disaster is that the conflict is not properly resolved. The country is divided into three parts. We need full implementation of the Lusaka peace accords so that we can establish a full-blooded development programme. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a heavily indebted poor country, and if we could resolve that problem, the country would get debt relief and we could start to reconstruct what is really another failed state.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I have just returned from Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the site of that catastrophic volcano eruption. Will the Department for International Development look at improving co-ordination of relief efforts, as a refugee camp that I visited at Gisenye was sadly lacking in that regard? Having said that, I congratulate DFID on the work that it has done.

Does the Secretary of State agree that behind this humanitarian catastrophe lies a man-made catastrophe that has claimed 2.5 million lives in the past three years? Will she and the Government push very hard to move forward the Lusaka peace process, as she has said?

Clare Short: I will indeed look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises concerning the situation in Goma and see what more we can do. I agree with her second point. The cameras arrive quickly at a natural disaster, but the long-sustained tragedy of poor governance and endless war, death and loss in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, like the long-standing civil war in Sudan, is of no interest to the media, even though both countries are massive—as big as western Europe. We have an opportunity, if we are sufficiently determined, to bring peace. That will transform the prospects of the people of those two countries and of Africa, and we should make a bigger effort.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): After a spate of disasters in Africa, both man-made and natural, will the Secretary of State, like me, send her condolences to the people of Lagos after their recent tragedy? We hear a lot, and rightly, about the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but the spotlight of the world, as the right hon. Lady has said, moves quickly from one disaster to another.

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What plans, if any, are there for the reconstruction of dwellings in Goma? We have discussed water and sanitation before, but what plans are there for the reconstruction of accommodation for the people of Goma following the recent volcanic eruptions?

Clare Short: I am sure that the House will want to send condolences to the families of the many people who lost their lives in Lagos after the explosion of ammunition that made people think that a war or a coup was starting; there was terrible loss of life, through panic rather than through injuries suffered as a direct result of the explosions. I will write to the hon. Lady about the reconstruction of dwellings in Goma. We will stay engaged.

I agree that it is the tragedies that do not hit the headlines that are killing more people and destroying more lives. That is where we must concentrate our efforts so that the people of Goma have a better life within a Democratic Republic of the Congo that is properly governed and can start real economic development.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): As well as concentrating on immediate natural disasters, surely it is important to take a long view for Africa. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Prime Minister to visit Africa and to co-ordinate a Marshall aid-style Africa initiative to ensure that Africa is not locked out of globalisation for the future, and that it does not suffer a reverse, with people dying of starvation on an even greater scale for lack of initiatives being taken now?

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. A third of the poor of the world live in Africa but the poverty is deeper and progress is slower than anywhere else in the world. Across the continent, on current levels of economic growth, there will be growing poverty. We need a massive effort in Africa, which, as my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister is to visit shortly. We must resolve some of the long-standing conflicts, and with enough international attention, I am sure that major progress is possible. Then we will need more investment, faster economic growth and more trade access. That is what the New Partnership for African Development, led by President Mbeki, is all about. The Prime Minister is determined to be a partner of that and to mobilise the G7 and the rest of the international community to make an effort to improve development in Africa, which we urgently support.

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