HC Deb 27 November 1998 vol 321 cc513-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

2.30 pm
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

As well as having the privilege of representing the people of Crosby and Formby, I am an engineer. I am a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and I sit as a senator on the Engineering Council, which, as hon. Members may be aware, represents the UK's 38 engineering institutions. The council's purpose is to promote the interests of engineering and engineers, encouraging us to do more not only to support the economy, but to alleviate some aspects of world poverty. Engineers and engineering can play a key role in that activity.

World poverty is one of the greatest and most intractable challenges of our time, as the Government, to their great credit, recognised in their White Paper, "Eliminating Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century", which was published last November. I intend to bring to the fore the vital role that engineering has to play in achieving the target agreed by the United Nations to reduce by 50 per cent. the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. I hope that the Government will join me in encouraging the engineering community in its critical role in the 21st century.

The Telford challenge—a cross-institution partnership of engineers that was set up with matching Department for International Development funding—provides the framework within which to mobilise the global engineering community to develop engineering education, skills and practice in developing countries to combat world poverty.

DFID figures show that one person in four of the global population lives in extreme poverty. That amounts to 1.3 billion people—more than the entire population of China and the United States together. Those poor people survive on less than 65p per day for all their basic needs.

Poverty is a global issue. It occurs right on our doorstep in central and eastern Europe. However, the largest numbers of people living in extreme poverty are in south and east Asia, the Pacific regions and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the poorer countries in those areas have eternal foreign currency debts. Debt repayment leaves them with scant resources with which to provide vital health, sanitation and education services to the poor and needy.

The poverty-stricken individuals at the end of the chain feel isolated and totally powerless—they have no say in how their lives are run. With the threat of massive population growth over the next few decades, the resources in rural areas and city margins of developing countries will rapidly diminish, leaving the poor and needy with bleak prospects of a better life. It is essential that action is taken now to assist developing countries in dealing adequately with the huge challenges ahead.

It is clear that my colleagues, the engineers of the United Kingdom, play a primary role in the stability and economy of developed countries, but their role in disasters in developing countries is also pivotal. Their response to crises such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tidal waves has always been immediate and has had an immeasurable impact on the stricken communities, which are often bereft of the three basic needs—water, food and shelter.

The international aid agencies now recognise organisations such as RedR—Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief—an invaluable body that selects, trains and provides competent and effective relief personnel to humanitarian relief agencies worldwide.

It should now be universally acknowledged that the engineering profession as a whole is ideally placed to address the fundamental needs of the developing world for the sustainable long-term relief of poverty. The enormity of the problems that face developing countries now, as they have faced them in the few decades, means that a broad range of professionals and non-governmental organisations in partnership with Governments need to work together to provide sustainable solutions to enable developing countries to face the challenges ahead.

The role of engineering within that process is critical. Engineers have the skills, experience and knowledge to provide and maintain the infrastructure that meets the three basic needs. They can provide fresh water, they can enable the production of food and they can provide the means for shelter. It is now our responsibility to ensure that those skills are not the preserve of the few, but are available to all who need them.

In the search for fresh water, engineering expertise and guidance are required to locate and extract water from new sources. A certain knowledge of engineering geology and an understanding of the materials available and simple structural techniques is all that is required to provide safe, permanent storage and a distribution system to supply agriculture and communities with fresh water from existing and new sources. If we as engineers have the knowledge and skills to supply each house in London with hot and cold water, we must share those skills and enable others to construct the simplest water supply to provide potable water to over 1.25 billion people who are currently without that essential service.

In the production of food, agricultural engineers are able to supply the simple education and tools required to improve the efficiency of farming methods used in developing countries. Communities and individuals could be supplied with, and taught how to maintain, simple agricultural machinery, which would improve productivity and the efficiency of the land. The provision of adequate road and transport infrastructure would ensure that the food that is so vital is transported to where it is required. Not least important is the maintenance engineer, who would keep the tracks roadworthy and the machinery in working order. If we as engineers can ensure that the supermarkets in Aberdeen are stocked with fresh produce overnight, we can pass on the knowledge required to establish that most basic of systems.

To provide shelter, engineers are able to teach local communities how to manufacture building materials from local resources to maintain a constant supply for the provision of low-cost housing schemes. Research and experimentation should be undertaken by engineers to improve the durability and construction systems for buildings to minimise the impact of freak weather conditions and natural disasters—for example, the design of simple anti-typhoon roofing, so essential in areas where climatic conditions are extreme. If we as engineers can design offshore oil platforms, we can share our understanding of materials to enable the design and construction of such low-cost—not low-tech—housing. Therein lies the real challenge.

The benefits to health and well-being are immediate following engineering intervention. The provision of a potable water supply to poor communities and the provision of adequate waste disposal systems would radically reduce the proliferation of diseases attributable to poor sanitation. Frequently, those diseases contribute greatly to deaths—sometimes, the death rate from them outstrips that from the original disaster. By facilitating the initial development of infrastructure to fulfil the three basic needs, engineers also contribute to the generation of the local economy by involving local contractors in educating, mobilising and empowering the local work force, equipping them with employable skills.

Engineers could mobilise self-help within the community to rehabilitate and maintain tertiary roads in rural areas. Engineers are in an ideal position to influence the creation of institutions for road programmes at national and provincial levels. The presence of new infrastructure facilitates new trade opportunities for rural areas. It improves accessibility to schooling and health care, and reduces associated transport costs. That clearly provides the initial relief sought by poverty-stricken, isolated communities—bringing solutions to those communities by preventing the mass migration of the rural poor to the city margins looking for food, shelter and employment.

The engineering profession can greatly contribute to supplying the long-term needs of the community. Through basic education, training and employment, engineers can empower communities to set up small industries and contracting firms, creating employment opportunities, developing local expertise and employing skills in the eradication of poverty. Engineers can make available to education authorities assistance to promote the study of mathematics, science and the environment for pupils at an early age, to encourage the study and use of engineering skills.

We in developed countries have well-organised systems of government, commerce and industry, with a sustainable skills base in science and engineering. By contrast, developing countries are weak in those areas and ill prepared for the serious challenge ahead. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has said: It is within our grasp to set about eliminating poverty. It is now our moral duty to rise to this challenge. The examples that I have given clearly show that engineers can start the ball rolling and maintain the momentum. Responsibility must be taken by the profession worldwide for developing the skills of engineers at the grass roots in developing countries, so that they can become equipped to help themselves.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to implore the UK engineering institutions and organisations to identify policies and priorities for engineering interventions that contribute to poverty elimination. They must improve accessibility to existing and new technology so that all communities benefit; devise strategies to achieve sustainable development; promote constant energy-saving and anti-pollution policies; and strengthen local and national institutional structures to promote the human resources available to maintain appropriate technology training and the sharing of skills and experiences.

The engineering community must respond to new demands on infrastructure, such as dams, in the face of the varying precipitation patterns that are a direct result of global warming; instigate pro-poor environmental improvements; and encourage international industries to target procurement of projects at small, local contractors, to increase employment opportunities. Developing countries will become important markets, so it makes good business sense to invest at the grass roots.

Engineering institutions and organisation must improve professional communication, to spread the word of successful policies and initiatives for wealth creation and sustainable development, so that developing countries can consider best practice developed elsewhere and formulate their own policies.

The Telford challenge is an example of how engineers can act. It is a new cross-institution initiative launched in May to mobilise the international network of engineers to help to combat world poverty. It aims to become a think tank of ideas and best practice for engineering schemes contributing to poverty alleviation. A database of ideas, schemes and individual and corporate expertise will be established and disseminated throughout the world network of engineering contracts.

Sponsorship, together with funding from the Department for International Development will enable the Telford challenge to sponsor educational schemes that promote the skills of engineers in developing countries, stimulating them to develop innovative ways in which to eliminate the basic causes of poverty and help the poor to improve their lives.

I ask the House to commend the Telford challenge for seizing the initiative to engineer the alleviation of world poverty, reminding every engineer in the developing world that it is within our grasp to meet the needs of the world's poor. We can no longer ignore that fact.

2.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing this debate. The House is grateful to her for highlighting the role that her own profession of engineering can play in helping to eliminate world poverty; I wish my profession of psychology also had a contribution to make, although it cannot be as advantageous. I also thank my hon. Friend for her positive comments about the Department and the White Paper.

As we have heard, engineering solutions can make an important contribution across a broad range of areas. My hon. Friend mentioned the need for access to safe water. I was struck by a recent estimate by the World Health Organisation that around 3 million children in developing countries die needlessly each year from waterborne diseases because of lack of access to safe drinking water. To give some meaning to that statistic, it is roughly equivalent to around one quarter of British children under 10 dying each year because they do not have clean water. We cannot tolerate that: the provision of safe drinking water for all must be a high priority for engineers working in developing countries. The Government have set a target for this sector for assistance under our international development programme and we are currently pursuing a number of new initiatives.

In Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana and India for example, we have recently started new projects that specifically target poor rural communities which do not have access to a safe water supply. In taking these projects forward, we are working with local engineers and encouraging an integrated approach to water supply, sanitation provision and health education, because that is the only way in which the full health benefits can be realised.

Engineers can help in several other ways to make a real difference to the lives of the people living in the world's poorest countries. For example, in many developing countries wood fuel meets more than 90 per cent. of the energy needs of the rural population. They have no alternative, but it is little wonder that the forests in many of those countries are fast disappearing, with the consequent adverse effect on climate.

Improved access to modern energy sources is another area in which engineers have a leading part to play in helping to find affordable solutions. Such solutions do not need to be complex. The use of a simple cooking stove, which can be made locally, can lead to a 50 per cent. saving in fuel. That can also save many hours of toil, especially for women and children. The time that would have been used to search for wood to burn can be spent in the garden to improve food production or, for the children, in study. The potential of solar power is also rarely used to maximum advantage and the installation of a solar cooker can make a real difference. The Department is actively working with engineers from a number of non-governmental organisations in our partner countries, helping to disseminate knowledge on those simple technologies and, in many instances, helping to establish a local manufacturing capacity.

The provision of mains electricity is often considered by many utilities to be too expensive for the poor. The reality is very different. The sad fact is that the poor are often forced to pay more for their energy needs than wealthy people. Lighting from a paraffin lamp costs about 100 times as much as lighting from mains electricity on an output-for-output basis, and running a radio on dry cell batteries is 1,000 times more expensive than using mains electricity.

Improved transport access is yet another area that can make a real difference to the lives of poor people living in rural areas. Without transport access, farmers cannot get their excess produce to market to help to improve their incomes. Just as important is the reduction in isolation that can result from the construction of a simple access track to a village that would otherwise be several days' walking distance from the nearest road. The Department is especially active in such work. In the Zambezia province of Mozambique we are, for example, currently funding the construction of 300 km of feeder road to help to re-establish farms in areas that were left largely uninhabited following the recent civil strife.

An interesting aspect of the project, which we are using as a model for other countries, is the idea of using construction works to help develop a local contracting capacity. The roads are being built by local people who have established construction companies specifically for that purpose. The project includes support for the new companies from British engineers who can help them to develop into fully fledged commercial operations. Plant and equipment used on the project is purchased by the new contracting companies on hire purchase arrangements out of payments under our project. When we leave the area on completion of our project, our engineers will leave behind a new local industry that will be able to carry out future projects on a commercial basis without the need for outside support.

Installing new water supply systems, building rural roads or installing a solar power system will only be a short-term solution unless, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, a system is in place to maintain these facilities and to keep them in good order. Increasingly, for basic infrastructure provision, that means establishing a local maintenance capacity that involves the end users. Both in rural areas and in city slums, communities are forming user groups that can take on the responsibility for operating and maintaining community infrastructure. To help to develop the participatory approach to infrastructure provision, engineers need to develop new skills, and I am glad to say that I see that happening as I visit developing countries.

At the national level, adequate infrastructure provision is an essential ingredient for economic growth. Industry requires good transport links to import raw materials to the factories and to export finished products. A reliable power supply is required to keep production going. Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between economic growth and infrastructure provision. If the poorer developing countries are to achieve the economic growth essential to the eradication of poverty, they will need to enable increased investment to be made in infrastructure.

Much investment will need to come from the private sector and, again, engineers will need to develop new skills and approaches. They will need to find ways of attracting private sector capital to help build and operate their schemes while at the same time ensuring that the services provided reach the poorest of the poor.

In that context, I am greatly enthused by Business Partners for Development, a recent initiative in which my Department is participating. It is designed to build partnerships between private utility companies and the poorer sectors of the community in order to improve service delivery. The interesting point is that the proposal came largely from private companies themselves. In the water sector, for example, the large European companies that have taken concessions to provide supplies in a number of cities in developing countries realised that their services were not reaching the slum areas. They wanted to work with slum dwellers to find a sustainable way to meet their needs, but lacked the in-house skills to develop the necessary participatory approaches. They therefore turned to the development agencies for help. Work of that type takes special skills and training, and it requires a multidisciplinary approach, with engineers working with a broad range of development professionals as part of an integrated team.

Helping to mitigate the results of natural disasters is another area in which, sadly, the skills of the engineering profession are being called upon all too often. The recent hurricane damage in central America is a case in point. There is an urgent need to improve transport links in order to get supplies into stricken areas and to reinstate clean water supplies to prevent the spread of disease. My Department, and the donor community in general, are actively organising support both from professional engineers and in the form of materials to help address those needs.

No matter how hard they work, engineers and other professionals from developed countries cannot by themselves provide the inputs needed to eliminate poverty. Ultimately that will be achieved only if our developing country partners have their own professionals who can develop their own local solutions to local problems. That too is an area in which the United Kingdom engineering profession is leading.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Telford challenge, which is an initiative of the Royal Academy of Engineering and some of our major professional engineering institutions—I have the brochure here. Those institutions have jointly reacted to the call for partnership set out in the 1997 White Paper on international development, of which my right hon. Friend and I are rightly proud. They have approached the Department to find out how they might work with us to help to eliminate world poverty.

The resulting challenge fund, which is funded jointly by the Department and the UK engineering profession, aims to develop local indigenous engineering talent in the world's poorest countries, and provides a network of support to help them solve their local problems.

Our partner institutions in that endeavour have accepted that there can be no quick fix to those problems and that it will take many years. However, they have assured us that they mean to stick with us and are mobilising support from the engineering profession in general. That is an excellent idea, which I hope other professions will follow.

I agree with my hon. Friend—as do the Department and the Government—that engineers have an important part to play in eliminating world poverty. I am confident that professional engineers from the United Kingdom will continue to play a leading role in helping to achieve that.

We are grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue; and, more important, poor people in developing countries will be grateful to her for focusing the attention of the House on this important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o'clock.