HC Deb 19 December 2001 vol 377 cc276-8
3. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

If she will make a statement on her Department's work furthering the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan relating to schools and hospitals. [21884]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

In Afghanistan, we are working to ensure that in the short term UN agencies re-establish themselves quickly, and that schools are reopened as rapidly as possible. The World Food Programme is planning—and ready—to reinstate its feeding programmes in schools throughout the country. In a hungry country, that brings children to school quickly. The Red Cross is increasing the provision of hospital-based health care. It already has much provision in the region ready to be moved into the country. UNICEF and the World Health Organisation have been maintaining child vaccination programmes.

For the longer term, we are supporting work in the UN, the World Bank and the Asia Development bank to begin the reconstruction of Afghanistan. That will focus on developing Afghan Government capacity in health, education and all other sectors and it will start to rebuild the shattered economy. Details of our proposals for the recovery programme have been placed in the Library.

Andrew Selous

I am grateful for that response from the Secretary of State, especially given that education was denied to women during the Taliban period and that the provision of health care by women was also denied. As children have only one chance for a decent education, will the right hon. Lady please tell the House what measures the Government are taking to ensure that the children in the camps receive some form of education—given that they may be there for some time?

Clare Short

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world: one in four children die before they reach the age of five. To get children into school improves their prospects as well as those of the economy. There will be an emergency phase of reopening schools throughout the country. Teachers are already coming back to work. Women teachers were not allowed to work, so in addition to the banning of girls, many boys were thrown out of school. The provision of food in schools will help to reopen them. There are also 4 million-plus people in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, so it is important that education provision should be improved there.

At present, the big move is in planning for the return home, as soon as possible, of the Afghan refugees who want to go back to their country. In the meantime, children in the refugee camps must be educated. We are working on that through UNHCR-the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the deployment of British forces as part of the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan should materially assist in opening up aid corridors and distributing the humanitarian aid that we so much want to deliver?

Clare Short

There is a statement on the subject, so I must be careful what I say. The first phase of the plan for the international force is to get to Kabul so as to enable the interim Administration to go to Kabul. My hon. Friend knows that what was negotiated in Bonn was a transitional interim Administration, to be followed in six months by a Loya Jirga, which would be much more representative of all the people of Afghanistan, preparing them for elections and an elected Government. The first phase is to get the transitional authority back to Kabul so that Government institutions may be rebuilt, and forces are needed for that purpose. Beyond that, we shall see.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I recently returned from Pakistan, where local Afghan aid workers impressed on me their very real fear that they will be expected to borrow so much money from the World Bank that Afghanistan will end up in a cycle of unpayable debt. Will the right hon. Lady consider promoting a trust fund consisting of the United Nations, the World Bank, non-governmental organisations and other partners as an alternative model for funding reconstruction?

Clare Short

No. I saw the reports of the hon. Lady's visit, and "well done" to her. The things that she called for were right. However, with great respect to her, the conditional funding from the World Bank will be available over 30 years, there will be no repayment for the first 10 years, and the loan is below commercial rates. It is lent at such a concessionary rate that it will be easily repayable, so it is one good instrument for promoting development. After all, economies grow, and we hope that the funding will be well used. However, that instrument can be used only when there are some institutions in place that can use resources reasonably well.

Humanitarian help must come straight through the UN humanitarian agencies and we are not in favour of a trust fund for that. In Kosovo and East Timor, trust funds were used that became very slow at disbursing. We shall therefore continue to fund the World Food Programme, UNHCR and so on, as now, directly into their budgets through a UN appeal. Later there will be a trust fund. It is in the process of being set up to help the United Nations Development Programme, which will co-ordinate the initial work to get institutions up and running. Trust funds are useful, but only if they are used for the right purpose. They are not useful to replace the enormous resources that can be brought in by the World Bank to promote long-term development.

Mrs. Spelman

The key is to use the new institution of the new Afghan Government. However, Afghan aid workers conveyed to me the importance in their eyes of a return to what they call the aid-for-work programme, which enabled them to get 200 km of road built in return for regular food supplies. Does the right hon. Lady agree that, come the spring, a return to that programme will be vital to the reconstruction of Afghanistan?

Clare Short

It will happen before the spring, I can assure the hon. Lady. This is food for work, as we call it—the World Food Programme's programmes. Before 11 September, the World Food Programme was the biggest provider of employment in Afghanistan. Just think of it—throughout this conflict, 6 million people were dependent daily on food trucked in by the UN. Now, as things calm down, in every community and village in the country groups will be called together—often led by women, because they tend to do things that are closest to the needs of the community—to decide what food-for-work programmes they would like, such as repairing roads or schools.

Throughout the country, the people want to roll forward and get food-for-work programmes moving. The drought and lack of planting means that for several years Afghanistan will depend on food brought in by the UN, and if we use those programmes to promote self-help and rebuilding, that will help the country. That process is already planned and beginning to take place.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Select Committee on International Development has just returned from a visit to Pakistan, where there was universal praise for the contribution that our Government have made, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, to the humanitarian aid for the refugees, both inside and outside Afghanistan. One of the things that became very clear to me, when talking to the Pakistan Minister for Refugees, was that almost all the refugees wanted to return home as soon as they possibly could. I hope that the Department for International Development will do everything possible to enable them to have a decent repatriation package and to speed their return to their country.

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The Government have made resources available, but as I have said before, my Department is respected throughout the world for its speed and capacity, and the country can be proud of the work that it does on behalf of the United Kingdom. I agree with her very much that the Afghan refugees, some of whom have been out of their country for a long time, desperately want to return home; they are not living in good conditions. The life of a refugee in a camp is a very miserable one—and yes, as soon as we can get conditions right in Afghanistan, assistance will be given to those people so that they can return home and rebuild their communities.

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