HC Deb 17 April 2002 vol 383 cc559-61
2. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What recent discussions she has had on improving access to primary education in developing countries. [46041]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

One in five children in the world are not in school and 800 million adults are illiterate. The UN millennium assembly committed the world to get all children into primary education by 2015. On current trends, that target will be met in most of Asia, but not in Africa. We are working, through our own programme. UNESCO and the World Bank, to gear up the whole international effort to ensure that the target is met.

Helen Jones

I am sure that the House will acknowledge my right hon. Friend's commitment to resolving that issue, but she will be aware that, on current trends, by 2015 some 75 million children will not be receiving basic education. Only 2 per cent. of the aid budget goes on education. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give a commitment that she will try to persuade the World Bank to address that financing gap in education? As it is clear that those countries that obtain debt relief then spend more on primary education, will she do all she can to encourage our international partners to give greater debt relief to those countries that have proper education plans in place?

Clare Short

I agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes. The point of the millennium targets is not to describe current trends but to increase the international effort. She is right to say that on current trends we will not meet the target, but it is achievable. The biggest problem is in Africa. Part of the problem concerns the commitment of the Governments of developing countries to primary education. In poor countries, elites are powerful and they tend to spend their budgets on education for the elite, not primary education for all. The international community cannot put that right except through international pressure.

My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that we spend 20 per cent. of our own budget on primary education. I shall attend the World Bank meeting this weekend at which this issue will be on the agenda. I assure her that we will make a greater effort.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

The right hon. Lady will know that I have just returned from a visit to Sudan with the all-party group. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House is far too noisy.

Dr. Tonge

The Secretary of State will also know that two generations of children in southern Sudan have missed out almost completely on education because of the civil war there. In view of the fact that 80 per cent. of southern Sudan is at peace some or all of the time, will not she reconsider her Department's policy and start investing in the future of southern Sudan by providing primary education projects?

Clare Short

No, the hon. Lady and all who advocate that policy are wrong. It is to pretend that development can take place around an ongoing war that is killing millions, displacing people and destroying an economy. We are trying to improve the humanitarian effort, and that should include education for displaced children, but pretending that development can be promoted around a moving war is to belie the truth.

Sudan is a desperately poor country that can have peace. There is a real call for peace in that country, which became independent in 1956 and has been at war for all but 10 years since. I assure the hon. Lady that we will try to improve the humanitarian effort and the education that goes with it, but the way to provide education for all the children in southern Sudan is to bring the country to peace.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

As another-Member who had the privilege of taking part in the visit of the all-party group to Sudan, I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to the peace process, which is alive but needs greater emphasis and greater effort. Hope will bear fruit. Is there not a place for education in a society where basic education might just help people engage further in civil society and in the development of a democratic society for the future, rather than being drawn into armed factions on either side?

Clare Short

Of course there is a place for education for all children in the world, and especially children who suffer as a consequence of war. The reality in Sudan, and especially southern Sudan, is that people have been displaced. They have lost their land; they have lost everything; they have lost their family members; children are not in touch. It is not the truth to pretend that we can organise sustainable educational systems without resolving the war.

As I have said, we should do everything that we can to ensure that displaced and refugee children have access to education. Pretending that there is peace or that more development round the war is possible is misguided. There is a chance of peace in Sudan, and I know that my hon. Friend agrees. We must try to grab the chance of peace, as well as improving the humanitarian effort in the meantime.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

As the Secretary of State will know, the members of the Select Committee on International Development recently went to Ghana. I think that we were all extremely impressed by the commitment of the Government of Ghana, and of communities, families and teachers to ensuring that there is universal primary education in Ghana. Does the right hon. Lady agree that every penny that is spent on primary education in a country such as Ghana is money well spent? Sometimes we can all become rather depressed by the failures in the international community, but sometimes we should celebrate achievements.

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is right. All research shows that the most powerful development intervention that can be made in any poor country is ensuring that a generation of children are educated, especially girls. As such a generation grows up, it can transform the prospects of a society in terms of child survival, access to education, health care and incomes. With Ghana's previous Government, we worked hard to try to achieve a commitment to a universal primary education programme, and did not have much success. Under the new Government, these things are looking much more hopeful. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is important to celebrate.